Are You Sick of Your Relationship?


Excerpts from "Is Marriage Good for Your Health?" by Tara Parker

New York Times Magazine, April 12th, 2010

A hostile fight with your husband or wife isn’t just bad for your relationship. It can have a profound toll on your body.

Couples in troubled marriages appear to be more susceptible to illness than happier couples.

Unhappily married couples are at higher risk for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease than happily married couples.

One recent study suggests that a stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit.

Those who reported the highest levels of marital stress were nearly three times as likely to suffer another heart attack or require a bypass or other procedure. It is notable that these increased risks weren’t associated with other forms of stress. For instance, women who were stressed-out at work weren’t at any higher risk for a second episode of heart problems than women who were happy in their jobs.

Results showed that the women in unhappy relationships and the women who remained emotionally hung up on their ex-husbands had decidedly weaker immune responses than the women who were in happier relationships (or were happily out of them).

The couples who exhibited the most negative and hostile behavior during the conflict discussion showed the largest declines in immune-system function during the 24-hour study period.

The results were remarkable. After the blistering sessions in which couples argued, their wounds took, on average, a full day longer to heal than after the sessions in which the couples discussed something pleasant. Among couples who exhibited especially high levels of hostility while bickering, the wounds took a full two days longer to heal than those of couples who had showed less animosity while fighting.

The overall health lesson to take away from the new wave of marriage-and-health literature is that couples should first work to repair a troubled relationship and learn to fight without hostility and derision. But if staying married means living amid constant acrimony, from the point of view of your health, “you’re better off out of it.”

A second marriage didn’t seem to be enough to repair the physical damage associated with marital loss. Compared with the continuously married, people in second marriages still had 12 percent more chronic health problems and 19 percent more mobility problems. “I don’t think anyone would encourage people to stay in a marriage that is really making them miserable,” says Linda J. Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist and an author of the study. “But try harder to make it better.” Even if marital problems seem small, Waite says, the data suggest it’s wise to intervene early and try to resolve them. “If you learn to how to manage disagreement early,” she says, “then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions."

Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser added that the couple’s research shows that some level of relationship stress is inevitable in even the happiest marriages. The important thing, she said, is to use those moments of stress as an opportunity to repair the relationship rather than to damage it. “It can be so uncomfortable, even in the best marriages, to have an ongoing disagreement,” she said. “It’s the pit-in-your-stomach kind of thing. But when your marital relationship is the key relationship in your life, a disagreement is really a signal to try to fix something.”

All sickness is lovesickness.

Stan Kulama