What Really Happens To Your Body When You Get Married

Out of the top 10 most stressful events a person may go through in their entire life, five of them are directly related to marriage, according to data published by Dartmouth College. The death of a spouse is rated by experts as the most stressful event a person can go through, followed by divorce and then marital separation, to make up the top three. Then comes incarceration, followed by the death of a close family member, and then personal injury or illness, to round out the top six. Marriage, itself, is No. 7, followed by getting fired from a job. Marital reconciliation is No. 9, followed by retirement. 

So, what are we to make of this other than adulting is hard? For one thing, marriage is clearly something that we value as a society — and things that we value naturally create stakes. But not all stress should be regarded as negative. According to the University of Michigan, some stress in a marriage may actually do a couple some good by presenting opportunities to work together and strengthen the marital bond. Moreover, getting married can affect your health in positive ways. On the other hand, not all the things that happen to your body when you get married are positive — and some may be more or less so depending on your perspective. There's a lot to unpack, so let's get started.

Getting married could cause pregnancy

With nearly 19 million children living in single-parent families in 2020 (via The Hill), it's obvious that marriage is not a prerequisite for pregnancy. However, for those who choose to wait until their wedding night to consummate, getting married brings with it a new possibility of becoming pregnant. This is true both with and without birth control, although the chance of getting pregnant while using contraceptives is considerably lower. 

According to Planned Parenthood, birth control pills fail to prevent conception in around 1% of cases. It's a small percentage, but, according to Medical News Today, there are at least five ways that birth control pills can fail to prevent pregnancy. Other methods of birth control are slightly less effective than contraceptive pills, including condoms, which fail to prevent conception 2% of the time, according to NHS. The rhythm method, which involves tracking the menstrual cycle and avoiding intercourse during and immediately before and after ovulation, fails 25% of the time.

Of course, using any method of birth control is more effective at preventing pregnancy than leaving it to chance. All it takes is "having sex just one time without birth control" for many women to become pregnant, according to the Utah Department of Health. Moreover, if a woman has sex without birth control — even once in a while — there's an 85% chance she will become pregnant within the year.

A woman's menstrual cycle may change once she's married

If you are a married woman, you may experience changes in your menstrual cycle, according to a research paper published in the Journal of Health Education Research & Development. Specifically, the authors of that paper stated that "marriage has a significant effect on bleeding, bleeding in between two successive periods, days of menses, pain, fatigue, increased appetite, fainting, indigestion, and forgetfulness." 

Healthline identifies five possible reasons for this. The first is stress (one of the most significant causes of which is marriage itself, according to Dartmouth). Per a 2010 research published in the Psychoneuroendocrinology journal, stress can influence the way the hormones involved in menstruation affect emotional regulation. Changes in routine, which may also involve stress, can affect the menstrual cycle. So too can weight gain, which is a very common phenomenon after marriage. And even if you maintain a stable weight, you may experience changes in your menstrual cycle if your body fat-to-muscle ratio changes toward the muscular side (via Better Health Channel).

Because contraceptive pills are designed to interfere with ovulation, going on the pill once you're married can also interfere with regular menstruation. In fact, the Mayo Clinic points out that some women are able to time their contraceptive pill-taking to safely delay monthly bleeding for extended periods. And, of course, during pregnancy, the menstrual cycle stops temporarily (via Planned Parenthood).

Marriage changes your risk of dying

When they say marriage is for life, what they don't tell you is that by staying married for the long haul, you may actually increase the length of your life, per the RAND Center for the Study of Aging. A pair of research scientists out of New York who analyzed data from the Medicare Health Outcomes Survey Cohort 15 found that married people between the ages of 65 and 85 tend to live longer than their unmarried cohorts, according to the resulting 2020 study published in SSM Population Health. According to the study results, married men in this age group lived an average of two years longer than their unmarried male cohorts, and married women in this age group lived between one and two years longer than their unmarried female cohorts.

The researchers concluded that marriage may affirmatively protect against mortality by offering a potentially healthier lifestyle. However, this effect would appear to decrease with age, suggesting that marrying younger may offer greater health benefits. This remains true even if one becomes divorced or widowed at some point, albeit to a lesser extent. However, not all experts agree that the increased life expectancy among married heterosexuals is due to marriage's protective effects. The RAND Center, for one, has conducted research that suggests other factors may come into play, including "selection" (i.e., people with better health may be more likely to marry).

Marriage may increase your risk of being murdered

Most murders are committed by men and against men, according to the United Nations' Global Study on Homicide. Of the 464,000 people murdered in 2017 (the year studied), almost 80% were male, and around 90% of the perpetrators were male as well. The good news is that research indicates being married is associated with a reduction in criminal behavior, according to a 2015 review published in the journal Crime and Justice. Although this phenomenon has been referred to as the "marriage effect," the data in the study did not convince the researchers that a causal relationship exists. In other words, although the researchers were able to say that being married correlates with less criminal behavior, they were not able to conclude that being married itself is the reason. 

The less good news is that over half of homicides against women are committed in connection with domestic/intimate partner violence, according to The Atlantic, quoting 2017 statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, only 16% of female homicides are committed by strangers. Accordingly, it appears that by getting married, a woman puts herself at a higher risk of being murdered. Even worse, a 1997 study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology found that a divorced female is at an even higher risk of being murdered than a married woman, both of whom are at higher risk of homicide than widows.

Being married improves the prognosis in certain cancers

Being married appears to be a positive prognostic factor for patients who have been diagnosed with certain types of cancer, according to a 2021 study published in Scientific Reports. These include uterine cancer (via a 2019 study published in Future Medicine) ovarian cancer (per a 2019 study published in the Journal of Ovarian Research), a type of brain cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme (via a 2018 study in Cancer Medicine), male breast cancer (via a 2018 study published in the Medical Science Monitor), and laryngeal cancer, which was the subject of the 2021 study.

Using data on 8,834 laryngeal cancer patients registered in the Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results database during a seven-year period (2004-2010), the researchers in the 2021 study found that being married was associated with better survival rates in the patients. By contrast, widowed patients with laryngeal cancer were found to have a less favorable prognosis. The study authors hypothesize that married laryngeal cancer patients tend to comply with treatment protocol more effectively than unmarried patients, although there is not yet direct proof of that. In addition, the study authors suspect — again, albeit in the absence of concrete scientific proof — that married individuals may have more and better access to valid medical information. In addition, married laryngeal cancer patients may be more likely to possess the financial means to seek out the most advantageous treatments. 

You're pretty much guaranteed to put on a few pounds when you get married

Being married is generally associated with better health overall, according to the authors of a 2003 study published in Social Science & Medicine. Perhaps paradoxically, being married is also associated with weight changes — in particular, weight gain, which, if left unchecked, can be a precursor to obesity and the various associated diseases (via the Harvard School of Public Health). According to Healthline, citing a 2012 study published in Obesity, women gain, on average, 24 pounds during their first five years of marriage. That's more than women tend to gain when living with a partner or when involved in a relationship but not cohabitating. For men, by contrast, all romantic relationships tend to lead to weight gain, regardless of their legal or cohabitation status.

In efforts to reconcile data suggesting that marriage is associated with better overall health with data suggesting that marriage puts everyone at risk for weight gain, research scientists writing for Social Science & Medicine suggested that change in social status may play a greater role in weight changes than marriage itself. For example, women who got married during the study period tended to gain more weight over the course of the study than women who were married and remained married during the study period. Moreover, men who were divorced or separated or who became widowed during the study period lost more weight during the study period.

Your chances of diabetes will decrease, with a caveat

Type 2 diabetes is significantly more common in people who are affected by obesity compared to people who maintain a healthy BMI, according to the Obesity Action Coalition. In people with a BMI over 35 (which is 5 above the threshold for obesity, but not up to the level of severe obesity, per the CDC), the risk of type 2 diabetes goes up 20-fold. Given that marriage often leads to weight gain, this may seem alarming. However, these stats are based on the general population — i.e., both married and unmarried individuals. When you factor in marital status, it turns out that getting married would appear to have a protective effect against developing type 2 diabetes, notwithstanding near-inevitable marital weight gain (via a 2020 study published in PLOS ONE). 

On the other hand, a 2019 study published in the journal Acta Diabetologica puts the spouses of those who have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes themselves. Although the study did not illuminate why that might be, the study authors hypothesized that some of the lifestyle factors that may increase one's risk of type 2 diabetes — such as a high-fat and high-carbohydrate diet, overeating in general, and high alcohol intake (per WebMD) — could be shared between marital partners.

Getting married may affect how you sleep, for better or worse

When you get married, if your sleeping arrangements change, that could take some getting used to, according to The New York Times, citing a 2008 study. That study identified a "newlywed effect" in women who were single at the start of the study and got married during the course of the study. Such women experienced more restlessness during sleep than those who were already married at the start of the study. Apart from said newlywed effect, however, married women tend to enjoy better quality sleep than single women, but with one important caveat.

Unhappily married women are 50% more likely to suffer from insomnia than happily married women, according to the 2008 study. Single women, by contrast, are only 30% more likely to suffer from insomnia. In other words, happily married women sleep best, followed by single women, followed by unhappily married women. As Dr. Wendy M. Troxel, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh and author of the study, told WebMD, "It's not marriage per se that is beneficial," but rather, it would appear to be a happy marriage that is associated with better sleep. What the 2008 study did not resolve, however, is causation. Specifically, it is not yet known whether an unhappy marriage makes sleep elusive, or whether poor sleep can make a marriage feel or even become unhappy.

If you suffer from depression, getting married may help you feel better

Getting married could improve one's emotional well-being, according to the authors of a 2007 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. On the other hand, when just one spouse is dealing with depression, both spouses tend to be less happy in the marriage, per WebMD. So how can these two seemingly contradictory scientific findings be reconciled? The 2007 study, which came out of Ohio State University, would appear to shed some light. 

The study found that among people with depression, those who got married tended to experience significant improvements in their feelings of well-being, as compared with those who did not get married. But the study also found that people who were not depressed before getting married did not receive as much of a "psychological boost" as their depressed counterparts. In other words, marriage can improve one's emotional well-being, but for some more than for others. Those who enter a marriage depressed may benefit most of all — and this holds true even in marriages that aren't particularly "happy."

"We were surprised," study co-author Adrianne Frech remarked to Live Science about these results. "We expected the depressed to have worse marital quality and therefore benefit less from a transition into marriage." But as it turns out, "the depressed benefit more from a transition into marriage despite their having, on average, worse marital quality."

Getting married helps reduce your risk of dementia

The average age at which an American marries for the first time is 28 for women and 30 for men, according to U.S. Census information. The average age at which dementia is diagnosed is 83, according to a 2017 study published in Demography. So, if you're recently married or thinking about getting hitched, there's a good statistical chance that age-related dementia is pretty far down the list as far as your personal worries go. Nevertheless, you might be interested to hear that when you get married, you are decreasing the odds of being diagnosed with dementia, at least as compared with single people. That's what a 2017 study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry concluded. 

"Being married," the study authors explained, "is associated with healthier lifestyle behaviors and lower mortality and may reduce risk for dementia due to life-course factors." The study authors also noted that dementia is underdiagnosed in people who aren't married. As for why that may be, the study authors appear to be assuming that people who are single attend their appointments with their healthcare providers alone. "Diagnosing dementia in people who attend clinic alone is more difficult due to lack of collateral information," such as that which may be provided by an intimate partner who may be in a better position, than the individual themself, to judge whether the individual is experiencing memory impairment.

Getting married is good for the heart

Although it may seem like a cliche to say that marriage is good for the heart, that appears to be the case, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Heart. That study comprised a meta-analysis of the data from 34 previous studies covering more than two million people in total, with the purpose of determining how being married influences cardiovascular disease, including its prognosis. 

The study authors found that being unmarried — whether single, divorced, or widowed — correlated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, as compared to being married. Being divorced, in particular, correlated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease — a particular form of cardiovascular disease in which the arteries are not able to deliver sufficient oxygen-rich blood to the heart, per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. This was found to be true for both men and women. Being widowed, in particular, increased the risk of stroke in men. 

Getting married to the wrong person could raise your blood pressure

Getting married is generally seen as doing your heart a favor, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Heart. But results may vary depending on relationship strength, according to a 2016 study published in the Journals of Gerontology. To wit, married men have lower blood pressure than unmarried men — despite the fact that unmarried men tend to have a healthier BMI, according to a 2005 study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology. On the other hand, if the marriage is unhappy, that could send blood pressure up, according to the aforementioned 2016 study in The Journals of Gerontology.

In that study, scientists used data elicited via a questionnaire about a cohort of 1,356 married/cohabitating couples (all of whom had taken part in an existing study, the Health and Retirement Study). The questions provided information about the respective couples' relationship quality and dynamics. The scientists found that "negative relationship quality" was a reliable predictor of increased blood pressure over time in both husbands and wives. In addition, they observed that in all marriages, when a wife experienced stress, her husband's blood pressure tended to increase. And for husbands in unhappy marriages, the link between a wife's stress and a husband's blood pressure was even stronger.