Bad Marriages Take Health Toll on Women
Study Shows Marital Discord Hurts Women's Physical Health More Than Men's
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
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
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
- Women with marital strain had more metabolic syndrome
- Men in bad marriages reported depressive symptoms unrelated to any signs of
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
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
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
"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
Henry and Smith are to present the study March 5 at the American
Psychosomatic Society's annual meeting in Chicago.