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Is Marriage Toxic to Women? Musings on Valentine's Day

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V-Day has come around and it got me to thinking about the research on love relationships and specifically their positive and negative impacts on women in particular. Is marriage toxic to women?

In my new relationship advice book, Sealing the Deal: The Love Mentor's Guide to Lasting Love, I review the literature on the health, well-being and financial impacts of marriage, divorce, living together and being single. We don't have room here to go through all that but I wanted to share some key findings in the hope of giving you a new way to look at your own situation.

Many studies that compare single people with couples as to their quality of life and general health and happiness come to conflicting conclusions. Some say that couples are happier and healthier while others report that singles are just as well off. On top of that, common sense tells you that bad coupling and marriages aren't going to be good for either party's well-being. I think the key to understanding these confusing results is the variable of couple satisfaction. Many studies have simply not measured the couple's happiness as part of their experiments or surveys. Of those that did, here's the overview: Bad or unsatisfactory coupling or marriages may contribute to health and psychological problems while good coupling may protect you from certain diseases or help you to recover faster.

We can't go into all of the studies so here are a few. A study of long-term coupling in which the partners were unhappy, showed that women more than men were likely to suffer from high blood pressure and obesity. Other studies have showed that poor coupling or marital quality was associated with depression, worsened physical health, poor sleep and metabolic problems.
On the other hand, many studies have shown that once a woman is divorced or separated that her economic, health and general well-being are all adversely affected. In other words, there is a severe penalty for being in a bad relationship. That is why recovering from a divorce is so very critical. This is a time that you need to be focused on you, your own needs and your own health (and, of course, that of your kids). Most critically, this is when you need to build a good solid system of loving friends and relatives around you.

Social support is of primary importance to your health. Confiding in a close friend will help you to feel less depressed and actually releases natural opioids--painkillers--in the brain that combat your pain. Social support is also very beneficial to your psychological well-being. In fact, singles with strong social support have been found to be nearly as well off as women in good relationships. That's because social support and love are probably the key drivers behind many of the positive findings in comparison studies of singles, married, living together and divorced women.

Now then, what about women in satisfying relationships? In comparison studies, they had the least atherosclerosis in their arteries and lived much longer if they did have heart disease. They had fewer doctor visits, lower blood pressure than singles or women in unhappy relationships. Studies of long-term couples showed that they report fewer headaches and back pain. Happy couples healed twice as fast from flesh wounds than those who demonstrated hostility toward each other. In fMRI studies of the brain, men and women in long-term relationships showed activation in the areas of the brain associated with dopamine, that is, the passion centers, as if they were newly coupled. There is no question then that the social support of a loving partner contributes to having a healthier, longer and happier life. So don't give up on finding a partner who is truly supportive and nourishing.

Bottom Line: Coupling by itself is not an answer to all of life's problems. Being single today combined with a strong social network of family and friends, is a very viable alternative to even a healthy relationship.