Happy marriage, healthy wife

An unhappy marriage is bad for a woman's stress levels.

By Carol Lloyd

Published January 3, 2008 7:40PM (EST)

When news of scientific studies is accompanied by an image of a well-coiffed 20-something proffering a hot dish with a starry-eyed grin, my mind, along with my stomach, tends to turn against the research. But a new study from UCLA's Sloan Center for the Everyday Lives of Families actually contains some interesting if not altogether surprising findings. In a study of 60 middle-class spouses, which used videotape of family life, surveys, interviews and saliva tests for the stress hormone cortisol, researchers found that women in happy marriages recover from stresses more quickly than their female counterparts in unhappy unions. Specifically, cortisol levels in happily married working women dropped more quickly after stressful work days. If this sounds all too obvious to be remarkable, the study found that men's cortisol levels dropped no matter what the state of their marriage was.

Why would this be? Of course, it's tempting to pop open a fresh can of predigested stereotypes about men's disconnected emotional ways, but the researchers' speculations are far more practical. They wonder if perhaps women in happy marriages have husbands who help them with the housework and cooking and childcare, whereas women in unhappy marriages essentially begin their second work shift without any emotional support or actual help.

Are marital roles of most Americans really so archaic? I won't hazard a guess, but this study does shed a little light on how the declining female happiness phenomenon may bleed into women's health in scientifically measurable ways. It also may lend weight to another study that found that men tend to be better off married, not necessarily because the marriage is great but because marriage tends to teach men to be more mature and altruistic, which does boost self-esteem and mental health. On the other hand, another study found that after cohabiting boyfriends get married they tend to do less housework, which also may account for their ability to check their stress hormones at the door and raise their wives' stress hormones.

Either way, all these studies about happiness and marriage coming out of institutes designed specifically to study this peculiar lifestyle have got me wondering: Does it make sense to empirically study marriages as one kind of entity? They can span days or decades, involve child rearing or not, be predicated on love and respect or loathing and violence. And in the end, they may make about as much sense to the outside observer as an alien culture.

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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