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Mental Health Center

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Bad Marriage May Make You Sick

Wedding Ring Doesn't Always Bring Health Benefits, Study Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 29, 2006 -- 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."

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