Marriage and the Heart
Marriage has earned a reputation for offering health advantages: longer and happier lives, fewer medical challenges. But “it’s not the case that any marriage is better than none.”i Some studies have found better health among divorced or single people as compared to spouses in high conflict/high stress marriages. In fact, unhappy marriages have been associated with high blood pressure, suppressed immune response, obesity, and the leading killer of Americans: heart disease.
Researchers at Michigan State University looked at data from 1,200 married men and women between 57 and 85 years of age. Relationships in which one spouse regularly criticizes or makes demands were associated with a greater risk of heart disease in the other spouse. The effect was stronger for older couples, and the health risk greater for the female rather than male partner.ii
These 2014 data affirm an earlier study in which women reporting moderate to severe marital strain and with a history of cardiac trouble were found to be 2.9 times more likely to subsequently need heart surgery, suffer heart attacks, or die of heart disease when compared to women with similar cardiac histories but in low-stress marriages.iii
How to understand the connection between heart health and marital strain? Perhaps repeated exposure to stress hormones like cortisol (which increases blood pressure) and adrenaline (which increases heart rate and blood pressure) gradually undermine heart function. With the body more vulnerable as we age — we’re frailer and immune function is less robust — marital stress may stimulate more intense cardiovascular responses. And because women tend to internalize negative feelings more than men — carrying around the painful emotions triggered by moments of marital discord — their hearts may pay a greater price for the toll that accumulates over time.
It makes sense then, from a heart-healthy perspective, for all couples — younger as well as older — to do what they can to learn the skills that contribute to marital harmony and effective problem solving … before cardiac problems develop. Maybe communication and conflict-resolution skills are as important as diet and exercise for promoting cardiac wellness. (See Argue Kindly, May 2010; Your Start-up, September 2010; Husbands: Warm It Up, January 2012; Complain Skillfully, September 2012).
If moderate to severe marital strain is a regular feature of your relationship, marriage counseling might be a very effective medicine.
i Umberson, D. et al. “You make me sick: marital quality and health over the life course.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2006 March 47(1):1-16.
ii Liu, H. and L. Waite. “Bad marriage, broken heart? Age and gender differences in the link between marital quality and cardiovascular risks among older adults.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2014 December 55: 403-423,doi:10.1177/0022146514556893