Hey, guys, if it's been a while since your wife asked you to ease up on the accelerator or lay off the red meat, you may have a serious problem. If she hasn't reminded you recently to wear a scarf in cold weather or to slap on some sunscreen on a bright day, you may need to see a doctor. Right away.
Or so University of Chicago researcher Linda Waite seems to think. Waite, like a growing number of scholars, has been intrigued by mounting evidence that women and (particularly) men live longer and enjoy better health when they are married. Waite believes there are a number of reasons for this, but one of her explanations is sure to get under the skin of every red-blooded American male.
Waite says, "Marriage provides individuals—especially men—with someone who monitors their health and health-related behaviors and who encourages self-regulation." Apparently, she says, married men benefit from having "someone who nags them."
Yikes! Waite's suggestion that a wife's nagging does a man good is every husband's worst nightmare. While most men can appreciate the benefits of having a wife who gently "reminds" them to get a regular check-up or to eat a high-fiber diet, the last thing most men need is for some expert to legitimize the kind of merciless hounding normally associated with the term "nagging."
In her defense, Waite's chief aim isn't to encourage women to pester their husbands. Instead, she wants to raise public awareness of research showing that a man's life expectancy is more adversely affected by being unmarried than by being poor, overweight or having heart disease. Waite thinks such findings need the same sort of attention given to research on cigarette smoking and lack of exercise.
In this, she is not alone. In fact, the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR) compiled a weighty report showing that divorced men are especially likely to experience health problems. When compared to married men, divorced males are twice as likely to die prematurely from throat cancer and seven times as likely to die prematurely from pneumonia.
According to NIHR, divorced men also have significantly higher rates of depression, substance abuse, auto accidents and suicide. "Being divorced and a nonsmoker is only slightly less dangerous than smoking a pack or more a day and staying married," observes NIHR president David Larson.
Why exactly does marriage offer men such health benefits? Waite says marriage gives men a sense of obligation to others, which discourages them from high-risk behaviors such as driving too fast or drinking too much. Moreover, marriage typically gives men reason to make and save more money, which can be used to buy better health care and safer surroundings, among other things.
In addition, marriage offers men a support system that can help them deal with stress and recover from illnesses and accidents. As Solomon said, "Two are better than one because if one falls, the other will lift him up." Of course, the research shows that not all twosomes are alike: married couples fare far better than men and women living together outside of marriage. For example, Waite says married men and women each report higher physical and emotional satisfaction with their sex lives than either swinging singles or cohabiting couples. Washington State University researcher Jan Stets reports that women in cohabiting unions are more than twice as likely to be victims of domestic violence. And data from the National Institute for Mental Health show that cohabiting women have rates of depression that are more than three times higher than married women and more than twice as high as those of other never-married women.
Apparently, the absence of a permanent commitment hinders the development of qualities such as self-sacrifice, empathy and trust that are crucial to the success of an intimate union. This is but one reason why a research review by Robert Coombs of UCLA found that the link between marriage and long life is due more to the fact that marriage fosters good health than to the possibility that healthy people are more likely to get and stay married.
As with all research of this kind, it is important to recognize that these findings reflect averages. The research in no way suggests that every unmarried person is doomed to bad health. Nor does it say that getting married gives one immunity from the negative consequences of, say, eating fried pork rinds.
But all things considered, stable marriage is good for one's health. And that's not just my opinion—it's the nagging truth.
William R. Mattox, Jr., is an award-winning writer who serves on the Board of Contributors at USA Today.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail