byFaith | 7.1.14
By Alan Dowd

What poets have been writing and pastors have been preaching for centuries is now confirmed by science: Marriage is good for the heart. A studyof 3.5 million people conducted by a team of cardiologists concludes that married people have a significantly lower risk of heart disease than single people: a 12-percent lower risk for married people under 50, a seven-percent lower risk among marrieds between 51 and 60, and a four-percent lower risk for marrieds 61 and older.

And it’s not just the heart. It seems marriage does the whole body good. As The New York Times reports, a Dutch study “found that in virtually every category, ranging from violent deaths like homicide and car accidents to certain forms of cancer, the unmarried were at far higher risk than the married.”

Citing University of California studies, a British newspaper recently reported that “a stable and surviving marriage is strongly associated with a longer life expectancy.” Culling from U.S. Census stats and death data from 1989-97, the study found that “those who had never been married were 58 percent more likely to have died during this period than their peers who were married and still living with their spouse.”

According to WebMD, “Married people are twice as likely to be happy with life…mental health improves consistently and substantially after marriage and deteriorates substantially after divorce or separation” and the “impact of marriage on health and life expectancy, particularly in men, is almost equivalent to giving up smoking.” (Smoking takes an average of seven years off a man’s life, while marriage adds an average of seven years. Marriage adds an average of three years to a woman’s life.)

Perhaps most remarkably, marriage makes people stronger: “Marriage has some remarkable physical benefits which aren’t fully understood,” as one research scientist told WebMD, “but it does seem to boost our immune systems.” In fact, a study of people over 65 “found that those who said they were happily married had much higher levels of antibodies in the blood. Married people, therefore, could be more likely to fight off flu viruses and other common bugs,” WebMD concludes.

These findings are not exactly groundbreaking. As The New York Times reports, a study from 1858 by British epidemiologist William Farr “found that the unmarried died from disease ‘in undue proportion’ to their married counterparts.” What Farr concluded—namely that “Marriage is a healthy estate…the single individual is more likely to be wrecked on his voyage than the lives joined together in matrimony”—still holds true.

Of course, God has been saying this from the very beginning. Genesis tells us that Adam lived and worked in a perfect paradise, where nature and man were at peace with one another—no predators or prey, no cursed ground, no painful toil. Yet after some unmeasured stretch of time—was it a month, a year, a decade?—the Father concluded, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

If the word “helper” is a stumbling block, the Living Bible offers a good alternative: “companion.” Regardless, it seems “alone” and “suitable” are the words that matter most here.

In a technical sense, Adam was not alone. After all, the earth was teeming with living things. But that was the problem: Adam, somewhere between God and beast, found that none of those living things were like him, none were suitable for him, none could heal his aloneness.

This word “suitable” conveys the notion of fitting together.The New Living Bible replaces “suitable” with “just right.” That’s what Eve would be for Adam, and that’s what Adam would be for Eve: “just right.”

The two would love each other, look after each other, and, yes, fall and fail together. After the fall, together they would rebuild their lives. Indeed, it could be argued that one of the earliest examples of God’s grace was how, in His omniscience, He provided Adam for Eve and Eve for Adam so they could “carry each other’s burdens”—and each other—in those dark, desperate days after the fall. Going through that alone might have been unbearable. 

This is God’s plan: husband and wife carrying each other, caring for and about each other, and mysteriously becoming one along the way. This process of becoming one may or may not have made Adam’s life easier, but it surely made it better. And science is telling us it also made it healthier.

Perhaps having something more—someone more—than self to live for helps us make better health decisions, helps us treat the temple of the Holy Spirit better than we would if left to our own devices, helps us take fewer risks with our bodies, just plain helps us.

I know it has for me. My wife encourages me to eat better, exercise more, worry less and generally take better care of myself than I did before I was married. And I encourage my wife to get the rest she needs, keep the stresses and burdens of work at bay, and search for balance between work and home. We do this because we love each other and count on each other—in sickness and in health.

So, to go along with all the spiritual and socio-economic benefits of marriage, this God-ordained institution contributes to better health. What’s this mean for us on a practical level?

First, it’s yet another reason to overturn public policies that weaken marriage, encourage cohabitation and contribute to divorce. Grave social ills grow from our culture’s nonchalant attitude toward marriage. We are deluding ourselves to think otherwise. At the same time, we must recognize there are biblical reasons to end a marriage, and we must love those wounded by divorce, as Christ did for the woman at the well. Related, our churches should never make those who are unmarried feel like they are somehow incomplete. To the contrary, as Paul showed with his words and in his life, not everyone is called to be married. In fact, Paul’s writing suggests that singles can be more complete and in tune with the Lord than those of us preoccupied with “earthly responsibilities” (I Corinthians 7). 

Second, we need to show young people that marriage is a good thing, which may mean some of us need to be careful with how we characterize marriage—the jokes we tell, the stories we share, the image we present.

Finally, we need to celebrate staying married as much as we celebrate getting married. As a matter of fact, since getting married is relatively common and staying married is increasingly uncommon—and since experience tells us weddings often generate stress, while science tells us marriage often generates good health—it might make sense for our churches to start having modest weddings and extravagant anniversaries. That would be good for the heart and the soul.

Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.