Unhappy Marriage Leads to Heart Disease (especially for women)

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A new study of 1,200 married older adults (ages 57-85) has found that people in unhappy marriages, especially women, have a higher risk for heart disease than those in good marriages. The lead investigator of the study, Hui Liu, a sociologist at Michigan State University, explains that results of the study show that the quality of a marriage affects even couples who have been married many, many years.

The study included survey responses about the quality of marriage, laboratory tests that measure heart health, and self-report about heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, and other factors relevant to heart disease.

Is your marriage going to result in a trip to the cardiologist?

Here’s what the study revealed:

  • When couples treat each other badly, for example being critical or demanding, heart disease is more prevalent, especially in women. This negative effect is stronger than the effect of positive relationships in a marriage. Simply put, a bad relationship harms your heart more than a good marriage helps your heart.
  • The older you are, the more negative the effect of a bad marriage on your heart health. According to Liu, this may be because stress from the relationship over time may create more negative cardiovascular responses due to the decreased function of the immune system and the frailty that increases with age.
  • Women’s hearts more affected by bad marriages than men’s. Liu suggests that this may be due to women’s characteristic of internalizing negative emotions and somatizing the feelings, which could produce cardiovascular disease.

For the complete study, titled “Bad marriage, broken heart? Age and gender differences in the link between marital quality and cardiovascular risks among older adults,” look online at the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

It’s never too late to improve your marriage.

Do you see yourself heading in this direction—or already there? Don’t give up. Even if you’ve been married 25+ years, with help you can change the negative patterns in your relationship.

How? Well, recently techniques of marriage counseling have changed drastically and have become much more effective at helping people improve their relationships. This is because researchers and clinicians have learned more about how and why relationships work. They have combined valuable information about how the brain, the nervous system, and emotions work—gathered from the latest developments in neuroscience—with the psychological theory of attachment, which explains how and why people get close to each other and “fall in love.”

slideimage02A therapist trained in PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy), developed by Stan Tatkin, helps couples, no matter what age, learn to:

  • communicate in more constructive way
  • help each other reduce stress
  • develop “rules” to create safety and security in the relationship.

Changing a bad marriage to a good marriage is not just about talking to each other more nicely and listening more carefully, though that can be part of it. It’s about understanding the nervous system of your partner, learning to regulate it, and developing “attachment rituals” to make each other feel wanted, secure, and loved.

Get thee to a therapist! You may–as a result–avoid the cardiologist.

As a result of this kind of marriage counseling, the nervous system, which has probably been on high alert for years in a bad marriage, can calm down. And the cardiovascular system can have a chance to thrive rather than break down.

Susan B. Saint-Rossy  is a  PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy) Level 2 Clinician and is also trained in EFT (Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy) and the Gottman Approach to Couples Therapy. She is a clinical social worker licensed in Virginia and Washington, DC.


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