Study after study shows that married people live longer and happier lives than singles. It figures. Having a family gives people something to live for. It encourages them to take better care of themselves, as all the soppy health insurance commercials on Indian television show us. However ghoulish it sounds, married men apparently even commit suicide at lower rates than singles.
But take heart, all you widowed people who think wistfully back to the days when your partners urged you to get an executive health check up or to stay in bed on a cold day and have your medicines on time. Losing a spouse is traumatic. The centre of your world drops out, you have to suddenly play mother and father to your kids, juggle the accounts, look after two sets of parents, and take over all household chores. All this while trying to cope with your loneliness and pain.
But as it turns out, coping with the emotional consequences of widowhood may just make you stronger than anyone else in the world-married or single, young or old. What doesn’t kill you does make you stronger.
“People often ask me how I’m so strong,” a widowed friend tells me. “What’s the alternative, I ask them,” she laughs. She’s right. While having a sympathetic spouse allows you to ignore or deny many difficult situations, it also fosters dependency. The bereaved have no choice but to do things for themselves-and smile as they do it so that the kids and relatives don’t worry. But somewhere along the way, not only do they get used to coping with everything, they become really good at it. Analysts believe the process of going through spouse loss creates increased resilience, which in turn generates a greater sense of autonomy and confidence.
A Virginia Commonwealth University-led study just backed up the belief. Researchers studying 1,914 chronic pain patients found that people who have lived through the death of a spouse enjoy some sort of “emotional inoculation” that makes them, if not immune, less susceptible to pain. Even physical pain. The study left the researchers surprised. They expected to find married people coping well with chronic pain, owing to the support they got from their partners. But no, it was the widows and widowers who suffered less depression, anxiety, frustration, fear and anger in response to physical pain. The sex didn’t matter; nor did age. Neither the married, nor the single, divorced or separated patients did better than the bereaved.
There’s more good news for singles. If the news about coping better with pain doesn’t cheer you up, this should. This works for all singles-unmarried, divorced, separated and bereaved. Marriage apparently increases obesity rates. Married women run the risk of becoming overweight by 3.9 percentage points while married men face a 6.1 percentage point rise in the risk of becoming overweight and a 3.3 percentage point increase in the risk of obesity.
Maybe the singles stay thin because they’re looking to attract a partner. Maybe it’s because people eat more when they eat with someone else. A 1992 study found that eating with a companion increased meal sizes by 41 per cent while eating with five or more persons can push up an individual’s caloric intake by 76 per cent.
But look for your blessings where you can find them, I say. Thin, strong and pain-free is not a bad starting point.