Being in an unhappy marriage may be hard on the body as well as the heart.

A new study shows couples that often argue may take longer to heal from simple wounds than those in less hostile relationships.

In addition to allowing old physical and mental wounds to fester, researchers say unhappy marriages may also trigger other unhealthy changes that could have a lasting effect on a person’s health.

For example, the results suggest that the delay in wound healing was caused by a decrease in the release of pro-inflammatory proteins at the wound site needed for proper healing. Prolonged changes in levels of these proteins, such as from constant marital conflict, have been linked to an increased risk of a variety of diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and depression.

Therefore, unhappy, hostile marriages may have negative effects on both partners’ physical and mental health.

The results of the study appear in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Unhappy Marriages Have Unhealthy Effects

Researchers say many studies have shown marriage seems to have a protective affect against common health threats, such as heart attacks and cancer. But not all marriages may be equally healthy.

In fact, previous studies suggest that being in an unhappy or troubled marriage may raise stress levels and increase the risk of heart disease or depression.

In this study, researchers looked at how hostile marital behaviors affected a simple process, in this case wound healing, in 42 healthy couples married an average of 12 years.

Each of the couples was admitted to a hospital research unit for 24 hours. In the first visit, the couples participated in a session designed to help them support each other. In the second visit, the couples talked about their biggest areas of martial conflict, such as money, in-laws, etc.

A vacuum tube was used to create blister wounds on the arms of the participants during each visit and monitored for healing following discharge.

Slow Healing Wounds

The results showed that couples that demonstrated consistently higher levels of hostility during both visits healed 40 percent slower than the others, and their wounds took an average of one day longer to heal completely.

Researchers found local production of pro-inflammatory proteins known as cytokines was lower after the couples argued than after the support session. In addition, hostile couples produced relatively bigger increases in cytokines the morning after a big fight compared with couples in happy marriages.

They say prolonged changes in these proteins could alter the body’s natural response to threats and increase the risk of a variety of health problems over time.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Keicolt-Glaser, J. Archives of General Psychiatry, December 2005; vol 62: pp 1377-1384. News release, American Medical Association.