Marital Strife and Your Health
By Rusty Wright
“Is Marriage Good for Your Health?’” asked The New York Times headline.
It depends, says current research. If you’re married, being happily married seems to matter most. So learn to fight fair.
For years, scientists have known that married people tend to be healthier and live longer than the unmarried. But recent research indicates that the quality of the marriage may be what counts. People in troubled relationships can end up having more health problems than the never married.
Stress and Your Immune System
Stress and unresolved conflict can weaken the immune system. Hmmm. Maybe that’s why when I’m less kind than I should be and my wife and I snap at—or ignore—each other, I sometimes sense a cold coming on. (Excuse me while I sneeze.)
Or when I interrupt her by trying to finish her sentences—especially when my assumptions of what she would say are incorrect—her icy (she says “wounded”) silence makes my neck hot and my stomach tight.
The New York Times article surveyed contemporary research on relationships and health. Pneumonia, surgery, cancer, and heart attacks are rarer among marrieds than unmarrieds. But according to the newspaper, “One recent study suggests that a stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit.”
The article quotes marriage historian Stephanie Coontz: “It is the relationship, not the institution, that is key.”
The New York Times article reported on a novel experiment by Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser at Ohio State University College of Medicine arranged for 90 newlywed couples to have their blood drawn during discussions of potentially volatile issues, such as housework, sex, and in-laws. Sure enough, relationship hostility saw immune-system declines. A subsequent study saw marital hostility correlate with slower healing of skin wounds.
The message: Spousal hostility can negatively affect your marriage and your body. “Try harder to make [the relationship] better,” advises University of Chicago sociologist Linda J. Waite. “If you learn … how to manage disagreement early,” she says in the article, “then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”
My 10-year marriage to my wife has been terrific. But like any couple, we have to work through our differences. One evening recently, Meg and I went to bed with a dispute unresolved. The next morning, we had some business in a downtown office building. During a break, I found myself privately consulting a very Good Book to remind myself how to be a better husband.
Some of it’s simply Divine advice …
"Don't let the sun go down while you are still angry." Ephesians 4:26
"You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires." James 1:19-20
"Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you." Ephesians 4:31-32
Words, of course, affect the emotional tone of discussions. University of Utah psychologist Timothy W. Smith found that among couples married an average of 36 years arguments that lacked any warmth—or that emphasized controlling language—were associated with increased heart risk. “Difficulties in marriage seem to be nearly universal,” notes Smith in The New York Times. But, as my wife observes, nastiness need not be.
So … conflict is inevitable, but fight fair. It’s better for your relationship and your health.
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Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents. He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.rustywright.com
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