Spouses in bad marriages face greater risk for serious health problems

September 14, 2005

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Spouses in a poor marriage are more likely to be stressed during the workday, a finding that could mean a greater likelihood of strokes and heart disease for both husband and wife, according to researchers at Brandeis University and University College London.

In a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the researchers also found that a bad marriage impacts stress levels of men and women equally, debunking the myth that a poor relationship affects the wife more than the husband.

The study results indicate that in addition to the carryover of work stress into domestic life that has been evident for many years, there are also influences of domestic strain on biological function over the working day and evening.

"What is happening is that marital problems are spilling into the workplace," said study co-author Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis and executive director of its Community, Families & Work Program. "And if these tensions persist over time, there could be serious health problems."

Barnett was joined in the research by co-authors Andrew Steptoe, the British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology at University College, and Karen Gareis, the program director of the Community, Families & Work Program at Brandeis.

In a study of 105 middle-age civil service workers in the London area, the researchers found that participants with more marital concerns reported greater stress and exhibited elevated diastolic and systolic blood pressure readings during the workday. The results were the same for men and women.

"It's generally assumed that primary relationships are more critical to a women's psychological well-being than men's, but this is not the case," Barnett said. "When there is marital concern, men and women are equally affected."

The researchers pointed to the alarming link between stress and long-term health problems. Stress is linked to six of the leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide.

"The results add to the evidence that psychological factors influence biological functions in everyday life, and suggest that poor marital relationships are related to neuroendocrine and cardiovascular activation as well as to adverse psychological outcomes," the study concluded.
-end-


Brandeis University

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