The Scary Way Your Relationship Status Affects Your Health, According To Research

Photo: - Yuri A / Shutterstock
woman kissing man

When you’re in the throes of a heated argument with your spouse, you’re probably not thinking about the link between your marriage and your health.

Getting through the rage of the moment unscathed emotionally is more likely your focus.

But, even the best marriages need a mulligan now and then — a "more than just a disagreement" that leaves emotional wounds in its wake.

RELATED: 9 Scientifically Proven Signs Of A Happy, Healthy Marriage

The elements of health & marriage

Ironically, happy couples in a happy married life may feel the sting of negative conflict more noticeably than their unhappy counterparts, precisely because they are happy.

They are more likely to make sure this kind of heavy conflict doesn’t become a pattern because they know what relationship problems are worth their focus.

They've learned how to discuss the bigger issues or agree to disagree when a conflict gets too hot — or at least how to make up after an argument that gets out of hand.

But couples whose conflict is ongoing frequently argue, rarely agree, and don’t feel happy at all in their relationships.

In this chronically high-tension situation, they probably don’t recognize the connection between their unhappy marriage and their health issues.

And there are health benefits when you have a happy marriage.

RELATED: How The Happiest Couples Keep Their Marriage Running Smoothly

Happiness and good health

A large body of research shows that married people tend to live longer and healthier lives. They have better psychological well-being, are less prone to illness, and heal faster.

That’s not to say, however, that marriage in and of itself is a panacea for all that might ail you. Just because you are married doesn't mean that you are instantly healthy.

It’s what spouses bring to the marriage and do for one another that capitalizes on — or eradicates — those health benefits.

Researchers Tim Smith and Brian Baucom spin things a little differently. They focus on the qualities that make people good at relationships in the first place.

They suggest that those same qualities make people more likely to be healthy and better at dealing with stress. Regardless, the walk down the aisle isn’t a ticket to health in and of itself.

So how do you explain the relationship between an unhappy marriage and health? Is there a difference between the physical and psychological health of those in happy vs. unhappy marriages?

Turns out there is a correlation and it’s all pretty logical when you consider the stress that characterizes an unhappy marriage in an unhappy couple.

RELATED: 4 Reasons Marriage May (Or May Not Be) Right For You

Frequent arguments are not healthy

In a longitudinal study of 373 couples over the first 16 years of marriage, frequent disagreement correlated to decreased health, especially in men.

The study confirmed that bodily responses to frequent conflict can lead to inflammation, the increased release of stress hormones, and decreased immune function.

We are all familiar with the body’s fight-or-flight response.

For quick understanding, we package it up as an elementary, caveman-period vignette of fighting off saber-tooth tigers. But, the mechanism of the body’s stress response is actually quite complex, with layers of potential effects.

When it comes to correlating an unhappy marriage and health, the stress of constant conflict, dissatisfaction, and other negatives becomes its own saber-tooth tiger.

The initial adrenaline rush that causes those familiar feelings of flushing, increased blood pressure, and muscle tension is just the beginning. After the initial surge subsides, the stress response is still working in the background.

A cascade of neurological, hormonal, muscular, and systemic responses is in the works, keeping the body in an alarm state.

Cortisol, for example, not only increases appetite but draws on fat stored in the body to fuel the body’s heroic efforts. It’s a non-partisan player and doesn’t judge the source of the threat.

Chronic epinephrine (adrenaline) rushes can lead to vascular damage and cardiovascular disease. Chronic cortisol rushes can lead to weight gain, especially to the accumulation of visceral fat and its secondary consequences.

Meanwhile, distressed marriages are notorious breeding grounds for poor health habits.

RELATED: 4 Secrets Everyone In Happy Marriages Know

Unhappy marriage, poor health?

People who smoke may smoke more and those who don’t may start. Alcohol use may increase. Exercise may take a back seat, especially if depression sets in. And any semblance of healthful eating habits may become a faint memory.

As a matter of fact, fighting with your spouse can trigger the hunger hormone ghrelin. The stress of conflict can make you not care about what you eat — only that you stuff your feelings with comfort food.

That usually means high-sugar, high-fat foods that lead to weight gain and potential chronic conditions like coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In a very real sense, an unhappy marriage and health can be fatally connected. Unfortunately, when you go to your MD for your annual check-up or for specific complaints, they aren't likely to ask relationship questions.

The focus is on your symptoms and their history, frequency, and intensity.

But, given that stress is directly related to the six leading causes of death, perhaps we should rethink how we approach medical intakes, diagnoses, and treatment plans.

If so many medical office visits are for stress-related complaints, perhaps more attention needs to be given to the actual root of the problem.

Furthermore, marital stress can also cause health problems.

RELATED: The First Thing To Do If You're In An Unhappy Marriage

The path to a power struggle

Couples plagued by an unhappy marriage and health problems are usually so steeped in poor relationship dynamics that they don’t see a way out.

They are trigger-happy, both in terms of what they dish out and how they perceive one another.

Half the time they don’t even know what they are really fighting about. They know only "the fight." 

What connects them is also what drives them apart.

The tragedy of living this way is that both partners want the same thing — they want to be heard, understood, valued, and accepted.

They want to be loved for who they are, flaws and all. And they want to feel safe — physically, emotionally, and sexually.

But, when chronic conflict takes over, the relationship becomes a power struggle.

RELATED: 9 Daily Habits Of Couples Who Stay Married (And Happy!) For Life

It's not a competition

Competition replaces cooperation and collaboration. And spouses who once embarked on a common dream know only the nightmare of an exhausting, fruitless, divisive clashing of wills.

As a form of self-care, going on a marriage counseling retreat can benefit your health.

You have probably never thought of couples counseling as potentially life-saving, but it is.

And perhaps you have never thought of it as an essential component of your health plan, but it should be.

If you are in an unhappy marriage, a marriage-intensive retreat can be an immediate, life-saving infusion. In this format, you have the opportunity to focus only on your marriage for several days.

In the safety of a specialized therapy team, you can learn how to take care of yourself and get to go to the heart of the matter — in more ways than one.

By learning how to communicate with one another in a loving, safe way, you set the stage for a dynamic that doesn’t involve running away from prehistoric beasts.

You learn to navigate a once-frightening terrain with confidence because you know you have the skills to survive.

And you know you have one another.

RELATED: 3 Rules To Have In Your Marriage That Just Make Life Better

Dr. Jerry Duberstein, Ph.D., is a couples therapist and his partner, Mary Ellen Goggin, JD, is a relationship guide. In addition to marriage and couples counseling and coaching, they lead private intensive couples retreats. They are also the co-authors of Relationship Transformation: Have Your Cake and Eat It Too.

This article was originally published at Free and Connected. Reprinted with permission from the author.