Married men are healthier men. But for women, the health benefits of marriage are said to depend entirely on the health of the marriage itself. So much so that many women are now turning their backs on marriage and men, declaring themselves happy to be "freemales" - single, in other words - rather than risk a marriage that doesn't work. So what's going on? Is there something magical that happens just to men after they have strolled up the aisle?
Over and over again, studies show that marriage is better for men than for women. Married men are less likely to smoke, eat fried food, develop Alzheimer's disease or take their own lives than their unmarried or divorced counterparts, says a Harvard University study. The health benefits of marriage for men are so strong, it seems, that a married man with heart disease can expect to live, on average, 1,400 days longer (that's nearly four years) than an unmarried man with a healthy heart.
The extension in life expectancy is even greater for a married man who has cancer or is 20 pounds overweight compared with his healthy, but unmarried, counterpart. Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at Kent University in the UK, says that for men, just being married confers a tremendous amount of benefits. "Marriage creates stability and certainty. It means men are living in a way which is more predictable and less erratic than when they were living alone. They are living, in many cases, up to the expectations of their wives.
"They don't order takeaway food every night. They go to bed a little earlier. "So marriage contains the more dysfunctional aspects of their lifestyle." Women, on the other hand, are less prone to risky behaviour anyway, are more likely to go to see the doctor when they are sick, and they take care of themselves better, he says. The other big difference between single men and women is that single men have poor social support systems, and women have great support systems, he says.
"So, women are much more self-sufficient, and the marriage benefits for women are more muted." In fact, ever since an American study in 1972 reported that married women were subjected to greater psychological stress than unmarried women, there has been a popular notion that marriage is good for men and oppressive for women. But are women really happier and healthier single? Figures released this year by the UK's Office for National Statistics are telling.
The number of women living alone in the UK and aged between 25 and 44 - the age when traditionally they would be married and having families - has doubled in the past two decades. Two-thirds of those questioned believed they did not need a partner to enjoy a happy life. But many relationship counsellors argue that this is not the whole truth, and that in fact many women long for a relationship - and for children - and most want to marry.
Relationships expert Dr Pam Spurr, writing in London's Daily Mail newspaper, said: "Yes, outwardly women in 2008 are supposed to aspire to careers and self-fulfilment, but inwardly they also long to satisfy an urge that's been around as long as humankind: to connect with a partner - and if their biological clock is ticking - to fulfil it and produce children together. "It's absolute tosh to think it's any other way. The human species would die out if this weren't the case.
"By far the majority of single women I speak to would give up a high-flying career in a flash in exchange for married life with a good man." And a good marriage does seem to have health benefits for women. Healthy women who say their marriages are very satisfying have better heart health, healthier lifestyles and fewer emotional problems than women in unhappy marriages, according to academics at the University of Pittsburgh.
Women in high-quality marriages do benefit from being married, believes Linda Gallo, who conducted the university's Healthy Women Study. They are less likely to get heart disease in the future, her study says. And in terms of emotional distress, satisfied women reported more social support and fewer less feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety. But less-satisfying marriages are bad - at least for the women involved, it would seem.
Gallo's study collected data from 490 women in their forties - nearly all of them married - and followed them for 13 years. Women who got little satisfaction from their marriages came to the study in worse health. They didn't get better over time. Happily married women started out in pretty good health and aged well. Women in distressed marriages - and in this group, this meant they were not all that distressed, just less happy than other women - already suffered the negative effects of being in a less-than-happy marriage.
The women in happy marriages were thinner, gained less weight over time, and had lower cholesterol levels. The less happy women tended to exercise less, she observed. But there's still that question of why the average marriage is healthier for the average man than for the average woman. Timothy J Loving, assistant professor in the University of Texas' Department of Human Ecology, suggests one explanation.
He says that men identify their wives as their main support, someone who is there to talk to. "Women maintain a larger support network. They are able to use other relationships for support. Wives don't gain as much from marriage, on a psychosocial level, as a husband would." This doesn't mean that men cannot be supportive partners, or that some women are not hopelessly self-absorbed. But, on average, women as wives tend to be supportive. The average husband gets more support from his wife than the average wife gets from her husband.
It's also possible that the difference is down to the differing effects social change has had on men and women. According to two studies by professors at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, women are unhappy about 90 minutes more per week than men. This is a shift in happiness since research in the 1970s, when women said they were slightly happier than men. One of the studies also indicated that since the 1960s, men have cut back on unpleasant activities and now relax more.
Women, particularly working mothers, are taking on more tasks than they did four decades ago. They have replaced housework with paid work, but that doesn't mean that the housework has gone away. As such, women's "to do" lists have grown, but there is still a finite number of waking hours in which to get everything done. So what's the answer? Apparently it's turning a bad marriage into a good one. Latest data show that within five years, just 12 per cent of very unhappily married couples who stick it out are still unhappy; 70 per cent of the unhappiest couples now describe their marriage as "very" or "quite" happy. So just as good marriages can go bad, bad marriages can go good.