We all want to be in a joyful, long-term relationship. But most of us face a major dilemma at some point in our lives. If we’re in a stressful relationship we wonder whether it would be better to get out. If we’ve experienced a painful breakup, which is increasingly common, we wonder whether we’d be better off alone or if we should risk another try to “live happily ever after.” Whatever, we decide more of us are experiencing PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, irritable male syndrome and other indicators of stress and overwhelm.
Most of us believe that being in relationship is better than being alone. That’s why we continue to marry even though the divorce rate remains high for first marriages and even higher for subsequent marriages.
We know that having a good relationship is a very valuable asset. How valuable? A study by Dr. Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, reported in the prestigious International Journal of Epidemiology calculated that marriage brings the same amount of happiness as $132,400 of annual income. What do you lose when you separate? When we separate and divorce, it would take an additional income of $249,700 of income each year to balance the loss. These figures didn’t even calculate the actual cost of separation and divorce (moving out, two households, lawyer’s fees, etc.).
We could also add the health benefits of a healthy marriage, which are considerable. Researchers are finding that marriage has a much greater impact in our lives than many have assumed. This is especially true in the area of adult health and well-being. Being in a happy marriage provides great benefits according to sociologist Linda Waite and researcher Maggie Gallagher. “The evidence from four decades of research is surprisingly clear: a good marriage is both men’s and women’s best bet for living a long and healthy life.”
According to recent research conducted at NYU Langone Medical Center, married people are less likely to have cardiovascular problems. Analysis of surveys of more than 3.5 million American men and women, administered at some 20,000 health centers across the country — believed to be the largest analysis of its kind ever performed — found that married people, regardless of age, sex, or even cardiovascular risk factors, had significantly less chances of having any kind of cardiovascular disease than those who were single, divorced or widowed.
“Our survey results clearly show that when it comes to cardiovascular disease, marital status does indeed matter,” says senior study investigator cardiologist Jeffrey Berger, M.D. Berger adds that his team’s study results, which involved study participants whose age ranged from 21 to 99, suggest that clinicians need to pay attention to marital status when evaluating patients for heart problems. “If one of my patients is recently widowed or divorced, I’m increasingly vigilant about examining that patient for signs of any type of cardiovascular disease and depression,” he says.
Stressful Social Relationships Can Be Deadly
A recently published Danish study with nearly 10,000 people found that conflicts and worries in our relationships can cause us to die sooner. The authors of the study asked a sample of men and women aged 36-52 the following question.
“In your everyday life, do you experience conflicts with any of the following people?”
- Other family
The respondents were asked whether they experienced conflict “always,” “often,” “sometimes,” “seldom,” or “never” for their applicable relationships. Eleven years later, 422 of those surveyed had died. That’s a typical number. What’s compelling, Rikke Lund and her colleagues at University of Copenhagen say, is that the people who answered “always” or “often” in any of these cases were two to three times more likely to be among the dead. The deaths were from standard causes: cancer, heart disease, alcohol-related liver disease, etc.
They also saw a similar trend when those same 10,000 Danes answered a slightly different question: “In your everyday life, do you feel that any of those people demand too much of you or seriously worry you?” Frequent worries or demands from a partner or children were associated with 50 to 100 percent increased risk of dying during the 11-year follow up.
The conclusion, then: “Stressful social relations are associated with increased mortality risk among middle-aged men and women.”
Living Joyfully Ever After Whether You Decide to Stay Single or Get Married
Should we stay single or get married? I’ve lived with the question a number of times in my life. I’ve been single, married and divorced twice, and have now been happily married for the last 34 years. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Social isolation can be deadly whether we’re married or single.
In our busy, stressed-out lives, it’s not easy to develop and maintain close friendships that can support and nurture us during times of need. This is particularly a problem for men who often have a more limited social network than women and are often not good at maintaining our friendships or developing new ones. Yet I’ve found it’s worth the effort. I’ve been in a men’s group that has been meeting for 35 years. Not everyone needs to be in a support group, but we all benefit from having close friends. Both my wife and I believe that keeping our social networks alive and well have helped our marriage.
2. Maintaining a long-term committed relationship is difficult, yet joyful work.
As a marriage and family therapist who has been helping men and women for more than 40 years, I have learned that keeping a relationship alive and well is not easy. Most of us learned to model our family lives on what we experienced growing up. These models weren’t always very positive.
Fortunately we now have good, scientifically sound, models for how to have a joyful marriage that lasts through time. To do that, we first need to heal from the wounds we got growing up or from earlier relationships. Clinical psychologists George Pratt and Peter Lambrou, offer a simple, yet effective process, in their book Code to Joy: The Four-Step Solution to Unlocking Your Natural State of Happiness.
We then need to develop ways to address the continuing stress in our lives. I offer my own model in my book, Stress Relief for Men: How to Use the Revolutionary Tools of Energy Healing to Live Well.
Finally, we can learn practices from the new science of love. Two experts that I have found most helpful are John Gottman, author of What Makes Love Last? How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal and Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense: A Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships.
We don’t have to choose between being in a relationship or being alone. We can be alone and have a healthy social network of friends. Or we can be in a committed long-term relationship and have a healthy social network of friends. To summarize it another way, we could say we don’t have to choose between health and wealth. As one man told me, “I’d rather be rich and healthy than sick and poor.”
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