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Heart Disease Health Center

Bad Marriages Take Health Toll on Women

Study Shows Marital Discord Hurts Women's Physical Health More Than Men's
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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.

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