People in unhappy marriages are at a much higher risk for heart disease than people in satisfactory relationships, according to recent research from the US.
A study reported in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior reported that married people seem healthier because marriage may promote health. But it’s not that every marriage is better than none; the research shows that the quality of marriage is really important.
The report, one of the first to take a fully representative sample of adults and examine the impact of marriage quality on heart health over time, showed that the negative effect on cardiovascular health was even more pronounced for women and older adults.
The researchers looked at five years of data taken from 1,200 adults in their late 50s to 80s, and examined their heart health, measured by factors such as heart attacks, strokes and cholesterol levels. They then compared heart health to how these adults said they felt about their marriages. Wives and husbands (who were not married to each other) answered questions about how close they felt to their spouses, how happy their marriages were, and how demanding and critical they felt their spouses were.
Both negative and positive marital qualities were taken into account because as the researchers said “Some people really love each other and have a lot of happiness, but at other times they may have a lot of arguments”. But the bad was more powerful than the good; they found that negative marital qualities hurt a spouse’s heart health more than positive qualities helped.
Being in an unhappy marriage can cause stress, which has a direct link with cardiovascular health. And those effects accumulate over time, which might explain why it’s stronger for older people, as the body “remembers” the effect. Such marriages can also push people toward unhealthy and harmful habits, like drinking a lot or smoking.
Speculating about why is it that women were hurt even more by unhappiness in a marriage, the researchers wondered whether women were more likely to internalize their feelings, feel depressed and be more sensitive than the men in their relationships. They also found that when women were sick with heart disease, it lowered the quality of a marriage, but not when men were sick. The report suggested that it might be because women are more likely to serve in a caregiver role for their sick husbands and be more sensitive to not exacerbating stress, but husbands may not be as sensitive about the relationship when their wives are sick.
As a therapist counselling in Hastings, I am able to offer counselling on relationship issues, either to individual clients or to couples. And I am always alert to the possibilities that the bodily problems which clients might describe actually have emotional roots.