Marriage and Health Part 1: Gender Differences in Social Control

It’s well known that marriage has many positive effects on health. Further, social isolation is a huge risk factor for mortality, comparable to the risks given by smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity. There is also a considerable gender difference in the benefits of marriage. For example, non married women have a 50% greater mortality risk compared to married women, while non married men have a 250% greater mortality risk than married men. All these findings are fascinating, but why do we consistently find these? In this new series of posts, we will be guiding you through the different pathways that will demonstrate how this relationship occurs.

This week, we will start by looking at a possible answer as to why men benefit far more from marriage than women. This is through the idea of “health related social control.” This is a little different than social support, which is characterized by positive encouragement. Social control is when a partner tries to persuade or intimidate their partner into changing certain health behaviors.

Social control attempts can be aimed at either health enhancing or health compromising behavior. Health enhancing behaviors are ways to improve health, such as exercising or attaining good sleep each night. Health compromising behaviors are anything that can worsen health, such as smoking or binge drinking. So, a control attempt at a health compromising behavior may sound like this; “Bob, if you don’t quit smoking, you won’t be around to see your grand children.”

So how does this benefit men more than women? Previous research has shown us that women generally have more health related knowledge. Due to this, women are more mindful of their health, and are also less likely to participate in health compromising behaviors. In fact, this finding is so strong that the greatest predictor in preventative health care is gender! Gender roles add to this. Women are not only more likely to monitor their own health, but also the health of others. So, if these roles are taken on during marriage, this can lead to more control attempts.

This sounds great for men, but do women receive control attempts as well? This is where it gets interesting. Contrary to women, men are less likely to monitor their own health and also the health of others. So, they are less likely to engage in social control attempts. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing for women, because they get their support from other sources. When naming their top sources of social control and support, women list family and friends over their spouse. To add credence to this line of research, men name their spouse as their top source.

While these findings are great and interesting, why are they important to know? While attempts to control another’s health behavior may sound like a bad thing, it actually does confer health benefits. It has been shown to lead to greater amounts of exercise, improved diet, and adherence to numerous medical regimes. However, social control attempts have a potential negative side to them as well, which can then lead to marital conflict; marital conflict can then engender a host of negative health outcomes (which we will talk about in later posts). So, it is important for each partner in a relationship to know their roles in the context of each other’s health.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and health: his and hers. Psychological bulletin, 127(4), 472.

Umberson, D. (1992). Gender, marital status and the social control of health behavior. Social science & medicine, 34(8), 907-917.

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