The Grapevine

Bad Marriages Can Damage Health, Husbands' More Than Wives'

In a marriage, having disagreements now and then is surely nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it can be useful in encouraging honesty and improving communication between partners.

"Fighting is so good because your relationship is about growing and becoming the very best person you can become. Fights are one of your best tools for learning," said Chicago-based relationship expert Dr. Judith Wright.

But prolonged and unresolved conflicts on several subjects can take a heavy toll on our health, according to researchers at the University of Nevada and the University of Michigan. The preliminary results of their new study were presented at the International Association for Relationship Research (IARR) Conference in Colorado.

The research team followed 373 straight couples over the first 16 years of their marriage. The aim was to observe the long-term implications of frequent disagreements regarding children, money, in-laws etc.

Subjective health was reported by the participants who were asked questions about their quality of sleep, nervousness, headaches, whether their health affected their work, and more.

Engaging in regular conflict over a long period was found to have a negative impact on the health of both spouses. But husbands were at relatively higher risk of suffering adverse effects compared to wives. On the flip side, studies from the past have suggested that men are also more likely to reap the benefits of a good marriage than women.

The study also examined if the number of marital conflict topics could influence outcomes. While the number of topics seemed to drive the decline in the health of husbands, the factor was found to have no relation to the health of wives.

Rosie Shroud, who presented the findings at the IARR conference, noted that high levels of conflict in a marriage can be as detrimental as habits like smoking and drinking.

"Conflict can be particularly damaging for health if spouses are hostile or defensive during disagreements or if they are arguing about the same topic over and over again without any resolution," she said.

This may lead to damaging responses such as poor mental health, excess production of stress hormones, inflammation, changes in appetite and more. Unsurprisingly, this can wreak havoc on your well-being in the long run.

One study from 2016 linked frequent marital arguments with muscle pains and heart-related problems. Another study published in 2013 linked relationship anxiety to immune system damage.

We already know from previous research that being married has the potential to be beneficial for both physical and mental health. But the new findings offer a sobering reminder that the nature of a relationship still makes the biggest difference to our well-being.

"It’s not the act of walking down the aisle or signing a marriage license that is beneficial for health — it’s what spouses do for each other throughout the marriage," Shroud added.