Health may fade faster for people in bad marriages.
That’s what University of Texas sociology professor Debra Umberson, PhD, and colleagues report in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Umberson’s team studied 1,049 continuously married people across the U.S. who took surveys in 1986, 1989, and 1994.
Participants rated their health and marriage quality. Over time, self-rated health dipped for everyone. The decline was faster in people in bad marriages, especially in old age.
“Unhappily married individuals have yet another reason to identify marital difficulties and seek to improve marital quality: Their very health may depend upon it,” Umberson’s team writes.
Good Marriage, Bad Marriage
Research has repeatedly linked strong social relationships to better health. Marriage is the most important social relationship for health, but wedding rings don’t guarantee good health, note Umberson and colleagues.
“While the married exhibit better health than the unmarried, it is not the case that any marriage is better than no marriage,” the researchers write. “The quality of relationships is also linked to health.”
They cite these findings from other experts:
Married people in distressed marriages are in poorer health than those in nondistressed marriages. People in low-quality marriages show greater health risk than divorced people.
Of course, those generalizations don’t prove which comes first: a bad marriage or poor health. Not all marriages are “good” or “bad” forever, and counseling may help couples improve their marriages.
Marriage Quality Quiz
Here are some of the questions participants answered:
How satisfied are you with your marriage?
How much does your husband/wife make you feel loved and cared for?
How much is he/she willing to listen when you need to talk about your worries or problems?
How often do you feel bothered or upset by your marriage?
How often would you say the two of you typically have unpleasant disagreements or conflicts?
The goal was to cover positive and negative marital experiences among the participants, who rated their health as excellent, good, fair, or poor.
Participants were 24-96 years old when the study started in 1986. Their income, education, and number of children were also noted. Umberson’s team titled their study “You Make Me Sick: Marital Quality and Health Over the Life Course.”Secrets of Happily Married Couples
Strained Marriages, Strained Health
Self-rated health faded over time. That finding was expected, though not all young people are healthy and not all elders are ill.
Self-rated health declined faster for people who gave their marriages poor marks. “Moreover, marital strain appears to matter more for health as individuals age,” the researchers write.
Why did marital strain affect self-rated health more in older people? Umberson’s study presents several possible reasons:
Years of strain may slowly wear down health, with the effects seen in old age. Age also hampers the immune system, leaving elders more vulnerable to stress. Older people are more likely to have chronic health problems that stress can aggravate. Older people may place greater emphasis on marriage as they lose other social ties.Newlyweds’ 5 Biggest Pitfalls
The study only included people who had been married to the same spouse for at least eight years. Not all marriages last that long, so the participants might not represent all married people, the researchers note.
They suggest that future studies include participants’ medical records and spouse’s health, since caring for a sick or disabled spouse can be stressful.
By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Umberson, D. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, March 2006; vol 47: pp 1-16. News release, American Sociological Association.