Bad Marriages Take Health Toll on Women

From WebMD


March 4, 2009 — Women in tense, strained marriages are more likely than men to suffer from mental problems like depression, but also dangerous physiological conditions, such as high blood pressure and obesity, a new study shows.

Strained marriages also cause depression in men, says study researcher Nancy Henry of the University of Utah.

But she says that men in such relationships, unlike women, aren’t at increased risk of developing the physiological conditions of metabolic syndrome. Aside from having excess belly fat and elevated blood pressure, other characteristics of metabolic syndrome include elevated triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and low levels of HDL “good” cholesterol.

If you have at least three of the five characteristics, you qualify as having metabolic syndrome, which is known to increase risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

For the study, Henry and her colleagues recruited 276 couples married an average of two decades, in which men and women were between 40 and 70 years old. Participants filled out questionnaires that covered positives, such as emotional warmth and mutual support; and areas of tension, such as frequency of arguments and extent of disagreements over issues like sex, kids, and money.

Participants also had medical screening that included blood tests and measurements of blood pressure and waist circumference.

The researchers found:

  • Women reporting more marital strain were more likely to report depressive symptoms.
  • Women with marital strain had more metabolic syndrome symptoms.
  • Men in bad marriages reported depressive symptoms unrelated to any signs of metabolic syndrome.

Why Bad Marriages May Affect Women’s Health

“Women seem to be more relationship oriented,” says Henry, a doctoral student at the University of Utah who also works at the Veteran Affairs Salt Lake City Medical Center. “We know by research that women tend to base their self-concept on relationships, how they are doing, how things are going for them. And we think that’s the reason we’ve shown that negative relationship issues seem to take a greater toll on women emotionally and physically.”

Tim Smith, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, tells WebMD that although bad marriages can contribute to depression in men, the physiological problems seem to show up only in women.

“It’s not like men were not troubled in our study. But the results were clear that women in this situation were more likely to gain weight. Stress hormones facilitate depositing of intra-abdominal fat, so the stress might make them heavier, and also raise cholesterol,” he says.

A large body of research shows that divorce is associated with coronary calcification in both men and women, but “in our data, it’s clear that the association of stress and heart health is stronger in women,” Smith says.

Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, director of the cardiovascular outcomes program at Emory University in Atlanta, tells WebMD that it’s just as likely that metabolic syndrome difficulties cause depression, rather than the other way around.

“We can clearly say that people with depression are more likely to have a metabolic syndrome, and vice versa,” she says. “People with depression may be more likely to develop metabolic syndrome due to lack of physical activity, or inability to choose a healthy diet. But this is the first time I have seen this gender difference, that depression can affect women more than men.”

Henry and Smith are to present the study March 5 at the American Psychosomatic Society’s annual meeting in Chicago.

Are Bad Marriages More Stressful for Women?

Henry says the gender difference they found is important because heart disease is the biggest killer of women, as well as men, and “we are still learning a lot about how relationship factors and emotional distress are related to heart disease.”

Smith, who is heading a larger University of Utah study on the role of marriage quality in heart disease, says it’s too soon to conclude that stress may make women more vulnerable to physical problems than men, but that’s what this latest research suggests.

However, he adds, “it’s a little premature to say they would lower their risk of heart disease if they improved the tone and quality of their marriages, or dumped their husbands.”

Other studies, he says, are trying to determine whether improving marriage might boost the health of marital partners.

This entry was posted in covert abuse, emotional abuse, marriage, passive aggressive, passive aggressive behavior, relationships and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bad Marriages Take Health Toll on Women

  1. I know I gained a lot the last year or so that me and ex were together. No matter how hard I would try to lose it I couldn’t. I was starting to get very depressed. My friend got to where she was coming over and making me go out places with her. She would come and want me to go to lunch or shopping with her. She wouldn’t leave until I got up got ready and went. She would be putting the baby in the truck telling me to hurry up. She is the only one who knew how bad I really was. If she hadn’t been there I don’t know what would have happen.

  2. childofthetruth says:

    PAA, I want to thank you for your blogging of your experience. I’ve been reading them for about 4 months now. I am now 3 months separated and today struggling with issues of PA from my husband. We hardly ever talk so then I get to thinking maybe it’s me. Then I feel anxious with the idea of going back to him, serious anxiety. PA really does screw with our heads, doesn’t it?! I am glad that I’m not in the same house with him but then later I’ll think of things in the past and wonder why did I put up with the craziness. Hang in there and continue to encourage all of us out there.

    • Yes, PA messes with our heads!!! Please don’t second guess yourself! You don’t need to go back to him if you don’t really, really want to. And PLEASE do not go back unless you are absolutely sure that he has seriously addressed the things he needs to address and has made the changes he needs to make. Do NOT let yourself get drawn back into craziness! :} Look after yourself, Sweetie, and take care of you and do the things you need to do for you so you can be healthy! You hang in there, too! And thank you so much for your comment.

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