Marital Strife and Your Health

By Rusty Wright

“Is Marriage Good for Your Health?’” asked the New York Times headline.

It depends, says current research.  If you’re married, being happily married seems to matter most.  So learn to fight fair.

For years, scientists have known that married people tend to be healthier and live longer than the unmarried.  But recent research indicates that the quality of the marriage may be what counts.  People in troubled relationships can end up having more health problems than the never married.

Stress and Your Immune System

Stress and unresolved conflict can weaken the immune system.  Hmmm.  Maybe that’s why when I’m less kind than I should be and my wife and I snap at—or ignore—each other, I sometimes sense a cold coming on.  (Excuse me while I sneeze.)

Or when I interrupt her by trying to finish her sentences—especially when my assumptions of what she would say are incorrect—her icy (she says “wounded”) silence makes my neck hot and my stomach tight.

The Times article surveyed contemporary research on relationships and health.  Pneumonia, surgery, cancer and heart attacks are rarer among marrieds than unmarrieds.  But according to the Times, “One recent study suggests that a stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit.”

The article quotes marriage historian Stephanie Coontz: “It is the relationship, not the institution, that is key.”

Newlywed Games

A novel experiment by Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser at Ohio State University College of Medicine arranged for ninety newlywed couples to have their blood drawn during discussions of potentially volatile issues like housework, sex and in-laws.  Sure enough, relationship hostility saw immune-system declines.  A subsequent study saw marital hostility correlate with slower healing of skin wounds.

The message:  Spousal hostility can negatively affect your marriage and your body.  “Try harder to make [the relationship] better,” advises University of Chicago sociologist Linda J. Waite.  “If you learn … how to manage disagreement early,” she says in the Times, “then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”

Our own ten-year marriage has been terrific.  But like any couple, we have to work through our differences.  One evening recently, Meg and I went to bed with a dispute unresolved.  The next morning, we had some business in a downtown office building.  During a break, I found myself privately consulting a very Good Book to remind myself how to be a better husband. 

Wise Words

Some of its simply Divine advice …

Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

Be quick to listen and slow to speak or to get angry.  If you are angry, you cannot do any of the good things that God wants done.”

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Words, of course, affect the emotional tone of discussions.  University of Utah psychologist Timothy W. Smith found that among couples married an average of 36 years, arguments that lacked any warmth—or that emphasized controlling language—were associated with increased heart risk.  “Difficulties in marriage seem to be nearly universal,” notes Smith.  But, as my wife observes, nastiness need not be.

So … conflict is inevitable, but fight fair.  It’s better for your relationship and your health.  And it makes making up much more fun.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2010 Rusty Wright