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Unhappy Marriages Harder on Wives' Health Than Husbands'

Medical researchers have spent years trying to determine what factors contribute to diseases such as diabetes. Now, some new research supports the idea that being in a bad marriage can actually contribute to the development of diabetes and heart disease - especially if you're a woman.

Most people will be married at some point during their adult lives. Not all of those will be happy marriages. Research has shown that depression and conflict can contribute to many health problems. Clinical psychologist Nancy Henry from the University of Utah wondered if the arguing and negative feelings that can arise in a bad marriage might make people physically ill.

"Relationship issues, relationship functioning has also been associated with cardiovascular disease," she says. "So, social support, for example, having good support is associated with having a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. And things like conflict, and hostility in relationships, has been connected to higher levels of poor heart health."

Henry examined data about nearly 300 couples. She had them answer questionnaires about their marriages and took data on their blood pressure and other physiological measures. Henry focused on the development of a cluster of health indicators known as "metabolic syndrome."

"It's a risk factor both for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and it consists of... mainly five things: abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high glucose or glucose dysregulation."

Henry says she thought she'd find more metabolic syndrome in marriages that were more distressed and less in marriages that were happy.

"And that is pretty much what we found, but only in wives," she says.

The men in the bad marriages reported stress, and they reported being depressed, but that didn't seem to affect their physical health. Women's health, however, was affected by marital strain.

"Women seem to take more stock in relationships as part of forming their selves, as part of saying, 'Who am I?' Henry says. "... And that's kind of why people have thought that these relationship issues are more impactful for women, both in the realm of emotional health and physical health, than they are for men."

Henry presented her findings recently at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Chicago.