6 min

New York Times: Effects of marital discord
Research increasingly points to significant health consequences of marital stress as well as the benefits of healthy marriages. A study involving more than 5,000 people in South Florida showed couples can learn skills to create and sustain healthy, happy, lasting marriages. Graphic: New York Times.

By Amanda Falciglia

For more than 150 years, policy-makers and researchers have known there’s a direct connection between marriage and health. Today, studies are increasingly identifying the specific aspects of marriage that promote wellness, healing, and increased life expectancy. This information provides a road map to strengthen couples, families and communities with significant medical, social, and economic benefits.

In a recent article, “Is marriage good for your health,” (New York Times, 4/12/10) Tara Parker Pope writes, “Contemporary studies, for instance, have shown that married people are less likely to get pneumonia, have surgery, develop cancer or have heart attacks. A group of Swedish researchers has found that being married or cohabiting at midlife is associated with a lower risk for dementia. A study of two dozen causes of death in the Netherlands 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. For many years, studies like these have influenced both politics and policy, fueling national marriage-promotion efforts, like the Healthy Marriage Initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

Parker Pope goes on to examine current research that considers aspects of “healthy marriages,” as opposed to the institution of marriage generally, that improve mental and emotional health. Common effects of marital discord include:

  • wounds can take longer to heal
  • immune system weakens
  • herpes outbreaks may be triggered
  • increased risk of depression
  • increased risk of mood swings
  • elevated stress hormones
  • elevated risk of diabetes
  • elevated risk of heart disease

“While it’s clear that marriage is profoundly connected to health and well-being,” Parker Pope writes, “new research is increasingly presenting a more nuanced view of the so-called marriage advantage. Several new studies, for instance, show that the marriage advantage doesn’t extend to those in troubled relationships, which can leave a person far less healthy than if he or she had never married at all. One recent study suggests that a stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit. And despite years of research suggesting that single people have poorer health than those who marry, a major study released last year concluded that single people who have never married have better health than those who married and then divorced.”

Linda J. Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist interviewed for the article, says, “I don’t think anyone would encourage people to stay in a marriage that is really making them miserable, but try harder to make it better. If you learn how to manage disagreement early, then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”

In 2006, PAIRS Foundation received a multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, to conduct a demonstration and research project in South Florida to deliver brief relationship skills training and marriage education to couples, singles and high school students. To date, more than 5,000 people have participated, including many on the verge of separation or divorce. PAIRS Foundation collaborated with Dr. Andrew Daire of the University of Central Florida’s Marriage and Family Research Institute to implement multi-year evaluation to understand the impact of PAIRS classes.

Follow-up assessments of participants in PAIRS Essentials classes have consistently demonstrated statistically, significant lasting improvements in relationship cohesion and stability, with enduring benefits that show up through decreased conflict and increased relationship pleasure. Results have been especially significant for both individuals and couples who enroll in the 9-12 hour classes with high levels of marital discord.

As research continues to expand our understanding of the emotional and physical health consequences of ongoing martial distress, knowing that couples from diverse socio-economic, cultural and religious backgrounds can achieve enduring benefits from brief educational programs should provide vital information to individuals contemplating marriage as well as those experiencing symptoms of relationship breakdown.


Amanda Falciglia directs the PAIRS Foundation’s research team,
including overseeing collection, follow-up and coordination of
academic analysis of data related to thousands of participants in
South Florida classes. Ms. Falciglia earned her Bachelor of Science degree at
the University of Central Florida, where she contributed to various
research projects and majored in Psychology.