Can marriage undermine your health?

Is there hostility in your marriage that oppresses you? Does your spouse have a chronic disorder? Then be careful! Despite the fact that generally married people have better health than others, studies have shown that in these two situations, partners may face an increased risk of developing obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Janice Kickolt- Glazer, director of the Ohio State University Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, and Dr. Stephanie Wilson explored—and discussed in this interview—how relationships affect our health.

Is it true that in general marriage is good for well-being?

Janice: A number of studies show that marriage generally reduces morbidity rates, improves recovery from surgery, and reduces the risk of cancer. At the same time, loneliness can be almost as damaging as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, or a sedentary lifestyle.

Stephanie: A recent analysis found that quality relationships in a marriage are almost as beneficial to health as daily exercise or proper nutrition.

But there is another side. Studies show that the risk of developing obesity, diabetes or metabolic syndrome increases dramatically (for example, in the case of obesity – twice) if a partner has one of these diseases. How to explain such influence?

Janice: If your partner leads a less healthy lifestyle, you start to adopt his habits, experiencing mild social pressure.

Constant disagreements in the family cause stress, which also leads to health problems. What is it expressed in?

Janice: Cardiovascular disease, hypertension – the whole group of diseases associated with metabolic syndrome. Family conflicts double the risk of its occurrence.

Stephanie: Many of the chronic diseases that are seen in unhappy couples are partly caused by underlying inflammation.

In addition, family troubles and depression often go hand in hand. An unhappy marriage is a very fertile ground for depression, and depression is known to be destructive to health.

It sounds as if most ailments are associated with inflammatory processes.

Janice: This is one of the main causes of disease, although of course there are others. Inflammation is associated with many different diseases. And stress can speed up inflammation.

Do behaviors also change as a result of stress? How is this related to poor health?

Janice: Most of us don’t tend to eat more broccoli when we’re under stress. As well as follow the rest of the rules that our mothers usually insist on: stick to a healthy diet, do physical exercises, do not abuse alcohol. Under the influence of stress, we begin to neglect all this.

Stephanie: Sleep is especially important for health, and it’s also disrupted if you’re stressed in your marriage.

Could all of this contribute to inflammation?

Janice: All of the behaviors we’ve talked about set the stage for inflammation. When you eat fatty foods and have an unhealthy diet, it can cause inflammation. If you abuse alcohol, smoke, lead a sedentary lifestyle, then all this can be the cause of inflammation. Symptoms of depression can also trigger inflammation.

Stephanie: Sleep disturbances are also associated with higher levels of inflammation.

How can we prove that marital disagreements affect physiology?

Janice: In early studies, we brought couples into the lab, put catheters in their arms, and asked them to discuss any disagreement. We tracked how the level of stress hormones in the blood changes depending on the degree of irritation. When people got angry and hostile, stress hormone levels rose significantly.

Can you give an example of what types of behaviors you tracked?

Janice: Bad marriages often have similar symptoms. The classic sign is the harassment-rejection pattern, when one person expresses dissatisfaction, and the second does not want to discuss it. Another sign is a negative escalation: one person says something bad, the other responds in the same tone, the conflict escalates more and more and more.

Does the body’s reaction to family problems differ in men and women?

Janice: There is a lot of psychological literature that shows that women remember both positive and negative events in much greater detail than men; women think about what’s going on in a relationship much more than men. So it would be surprising if the controversy did not affect women’s health more.

On the other hand, when a couple has a good relationship, a person may have health problems if his partner is sick. What exactly is going on?

Janice: The most revealing data comes from watching extreme situations where spouses cared for partners with Alzheimer’s disease. Several years ago, we showed that the immune systems of such spouses react worse to vaccination; their wounds heal more slowly; they have higher levels of inflammation. Today, there is other evidence (from studies of less dramatic cases) that confirms that the partner’s illness really matters.

Older couples in happy marriages face more health risks than younger couples if one of the partners is sick. Why?

Janice: Older couples have longer, stronger relationships. Moreover, the older the person, the more vulnerable he is psychologically. Stress in your 20s most likely won’t lead to illness or serious health consequences, but in your 65s or 70s, your immune response starts to drop noticeably and your body’s inflammation levels rise.

Stephanie: As a general rule, as people get older, their social connections decrease. Therefore, the psychologically elderly are more dependent on marital relations.

Is there a way to protect health when marital problems arise?

Janice: Family problems are well resolved through marital therapy (as opposed to individual therapy). It helps to form the correct view of specific problems.

Stephanie: It also forces you to make an effort to look at the situation through the eyes of a partner, and helps to approach the problem as a team. We have only a few studies on this topic. But they show that if the therapy is effective, stress hormones are produced less intensively.

How to reduce stress when one of the partners is sick? The most obvious advice is “support your spouse.” But how not to be too annoying or picky?

Stephanie: If you support the person without infringing on their independence (for example, saying “I believe in you; this is a challenge, but you can handle it”), then you will help him feel confident in himself. Empathy, as observations show, is also effective: you need to listen carefully when your partner wants to share something, and in general, show warmth and love.

Has anything you learned in your research changed your own attitudes?

Janice: Yes, the idea that you need to pay attention to relationships; what matters is how you talk about them and think about them. And yet, if a partner is sick, it is very important to take care of yourself no less than about him.

My husband has Alzheimer’s disease. When he was first diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, I felt like a train was coming towards me. Our lives are very closely intertwined. My husband was my main research assistant. And we have a really good, close relationship.

I tried to make sure that I had a busy life outside of marriage (for example, communication with friends is important), and began to take care of my own health more. I know only too well what happens when people don’t take care of themselves.

Can a breakup also cause anxiety, depression, and stress? And what is worse for health – to live in an imperfect relationship or to be left alone?

Stephanie: The data is mixed. One study found that single people have lower blood pressure than those in unhappy marriages. And in another study, single people and people living in unhappy marriages experience equally severe pain with rheumatoid arthritis. At the same time, in both cases, happily married people felt better than the rest.

When it comes to divorce, many do well and recover quickly, but a minority (10 to 15 percent) face increased health risks.

As for loneliness, it is possible to feel lonely in a marriage. Well, if you are not married / not married, then you need to communicate more with friends and family – this is really very important.

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