Researchers have long associated marriage — particularly happy ones — with physical and mental health benefits. A new Northwestern University study suggests that married couples who live apart some of the time benefit as much or even more than those who see each other every day.
Researchers surveyed 296 people in either “proximal” marriages — typical arrangements in which spouses see each other daily or almost daily — or “long-distance” marriages — those in which spouses live more than 50 miles apart the majority of the week, often because of a job. They found that those who were apart from their spouses more often had higher scores on a measure of overall health than those who saw each other most days. The long-distance spouses also reported lower general anxiety and depression levels, as well as less fatigue, better diet, and more frequent exercise.
An explanation for the differences may be that people in long-distance marriages simultaneously reap the benefits of being in a relationship and being single, says Steve Du Bois, study coauthor and a clinical research fellow at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
Along with the health benefits of being partnered, they may have “more independence to do things such as work out, socialize with friends, and sleep uninterruptedly, which are important to maintaining their mental and physical well-being,” he says.
The picture for long-distance spouses wasn’t better across the board. For one, they reported more stress over personal issues and conflict with their spouses than those who saw their spouses more often. They also scored slightly lower in a measure of “relationship maintenance” — which tracks actions such as saying “I love you,” discussing feelings, and keeping up with household responsibilities — and, perhaps not surprisingly, reported having sex less frequently. These factors could play into higher stress levels for long-distance spouses, Du Bois says. (So could having kids at home or managing travel-related expenses, factors he plans to explore in a future study.)
Previous research has found other benefits for couples living apart. A 2013 study out of City University of Hong Kong and Cornell University, for instance, found long-distance partners experience greater intimacy than those who live geographically close.
Still, long-distance couples experience distinct challenges. Finding effective ways to help them work through these challenges is a goal of psychologists such as Du Bois.
“Given that people in long-distance relationships reported higher level of stress in our study, we would like to find ways to help them and their partners deal with that,” he says. “I also think we have some things to learn from these long-distance couples, as there seemed to be a disconnect between stress and health.”