My first grade daughter, Sally, recently asked me to explain the difference between Democrats and Republicans. One of the things I told her was that Republicans want to use public policy to encourage (or coerce) (heterosexual) marriage and believe that everyone would be better off in (first time) married (heterosexual) two-parent families while Democrats tend to embrace a greater variety in family form. I thought of this when I came upon a recent New York Times article, The Ambivalent Marriage Takes a Toll on Health.

Conservatives frequently play fast and loose with causation and correlation when talking up the benefits of marriage, to the extent that some have promoted marriage as a measure for decreasing poverty, failing to understand that married people are on average wealthier than those who have not married because those with more money are more likely to marry, not because marriage makes people wealthy or generates wealth on its own.

There are other areas where this is true as well, such as conservatives touting studies showing that women who have abortions are more likely to die in the next decade than women who give birth as proof that abortion is dangerous when in fact all it shows is that women who are at greater risk of death due to various circumstances or lifestyle choices are more likely to have abortions than those who aren’t, and not that abortion is a causal factor.

Anyway, a recent study took a look at the purported health benefits of marriage, discussed in the New York Times as follows:

Every marriage has highs and lows from time to time, but some relationships are both good and bad on a regular basis. Call it the ambivalent marriage — not always terrible, but not always great, either.

While many couples can no doubt relate to this not bad, but not good, state of affairs, new research shows that ambivalence in a relationship — the feeling that a partner may be unpredictable with his or her support or negativity — can take a quiet toll on the health of an individual.

The findings, published this month by researchers at Brigham Young University, are part of a growing body of research that attempts to parse the so-called marriage benefit, the well-established notion that married people are, over all, far healthier and live longer than the unmarried. But increasingly, researchers are trying to understand the more nuanced effects of marriage on health. To reap the health benefits of marriage, is it enough to just be married? Or how much does the quality of the marriage, such as the level of support, warmth, negativity or controlling behavior, affect the health of seemingly stable couples?

The study compared individuals in “ambivalent” marriages with those in “supportive” marriages and found that those in the ambivalent group had higher blood pressure than their counterparts. The study didn’t look at individuals in bad marriages. While the study only examined married couples in a single city, 85% of whom had been married for a decade or less, the article noted that:

That said, the conclusion that the health benefits of marriage are dependent on the quality of the relationship has been borne out in other research. For instance, a University of Utah study found that a marital fight that lacked warmth or was controlling in tone could be just as predictive of poor heart health as whether the individual smoked or had high cholesterol. Ohio State University researchers found that wounds heal more slowly when couples have hostile arguments compared with couples who manage conflict without hostility. At the University of Virginia, studies showed that when happy couples held hands, the calming effect on the brain was similar to that caused by pain-relieving drugs.