Is there a hostility in your marriage that depresses you? Does your spouse have a chronic disorder? Then be careful! Despite the fact that mostly married people are in better health than others, studies have shown that in these two situations, partners may face an increased risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Janice Kicolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for the Study of Behavioral Medicine, Ohio State University, and Dr. Stephanie Wilson have studied – and discussed in this interview – how relationships affect our health.
Is it true that overall, marriage is good for your well-being?
Janice: A number of studies show that marriage, as a rule, reduces morbidity rates, has a beneficial effect on recovery from surgery, and reduces the risk of developing cancer. At the same time, loneliness can do almost as much damage as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, or a sedentary lifestyle.
Stephanie: Recent analysis has shown that quality marital relationships have nearly as much positive health impact as daily exercise or proper nutrition.
But there is also another side. Research shows that the risk of developing obesity, diabetes, or metabolic syndrome increases dramatically (for example, in the case of obesity, doubles) if a partner has one of these conditions. How to explain this influence?
Janice: If your partner is leading a less healthy lifestyle, you begin to adopt their habits under mild social pressure.
Constant family disagreements cause stress, which also leads to health problems. How is this expressed?
Janice: Cardiovascular diseases, hypertension – the entire group of diseases associated with metabolic syndrome. Family conflict doubles the risk of its occurrence.
Stephanie: Many of the chronic illnesses that occur in unhappy couples are in part caused by latent inflammation.
In addition, family troubles and depression often go side by side. An unhappy marriage is a very fertile ground for depression, and depression is known to be destructive to health.
It sounds like most ailments are related to inflammation.
Janice: This is one of the main reasons leading to the development of diseases, although, of course, there are others. Inflammation is associated with many different diseases. And stress can accelerate inflammation.
Does stress also change behavior? How is this related to poor health?
Janice: Most of us do not tend to eat more broccoli when we are under stress. As well as observe the rest of the rules that our mothers usually insist on: adhere to a healthy diet, exercise, do not abuse alcohol. Under the influence of stress, we begin to neglect all of this.
Stephanie: Sleep is especially important for your health, and it can also be disturbed if you are stressed in your marriage.
Could all of this contribute to inflammation?
Janice: All of the behaviors we’ve talked about create conditions for inflammation. When you eat fatty foods and eat an unhealthy diet, it can cause inflammation. If you abuse alcohol, smoke, lead a sedentary lifestyle, then all this can be the cause of inflammation. Depression symptoms can also trigger inflammation.
Stephanie: Sleep disturbances are also associated with higher levels of inflammation.
How can you prove that marital disagreement affects physiology?
Janice: In the early studies, we took married couples to the laboratory, inserted catheters into their hands, and asked them to discuss any disagreement. We tracked how the level of stress hormones in the blood changed depending on the degree of irritation. When people were angry and hostile, their stress hormone levels increased significantly.
Can you give an example of the specific types of behavior you tracked?
Janice: Bad marriages often have similar symptoms. The classic feature is the “stalking-withdrawing” pattern, when one person expresses dissatisfaction, and the other does not want to discuss it. Another sign is a negative growth: one person says something bad, the second answers in the same tone, the conflict swells more and more and more.
Does the body’s response to family problems differ between men and women?
Janice: There is a lot of psychological literature that says that women remember both positive and negative events in much more detail than men; women reflect on what is happening in relationships much more than men. So it would be surprising if disagreement did not affect women’s health more.
On the other hand, when the couple is in a good relationship, the person may have health problems if their partner is sick. What exactly is going on?
Janice: The most revealing data we have come from observing the extreme situations of couples caring for partners with Alzheimer’s. We proved several years ago that the immune systems of such spouses respond less well to vaccinations; their wounds heal more slowly; they have a higher level of inflammation. Today, there is other evidence (from less dramatic cases) that confirms that partner illness does matter.
Older couples in happy marriages face greater health risks than younger people if one of the partners is sick. Why?
Janice: Older couples have longer, stronger relationships. Moreover, the older a person is, the more vulnerable he is psychologically. Stress at age 20 is unlikely to lead to illness or serious health consequences, but at age 65 or 70, there is a noticeable decrease in the immune response and an increase in the level of inflammation in the body.
Stephanie: Typically, as people get older, they have less social connections. Therefore, psychologically, the elderly are more dependent on marriage.
Is there a way to protect your health when marriage problems arise?
Janice: Marital problems are handled well with spousal psychotherapy (as opposed to individual psychotherapy). It helps shape the correct view of specific problems.
Stephanie: It also forces you to make an effort to look at the situation through the eyes of your partner and helps you approach the problem as a team. We have only a few studies on this topic. But they show that when therapy is effective, stress hormones are produced less intensely.
How to reduce stress when one of your partners is sick? The most obvious tip is “support your spouse.” But how can you not be too annoying or picky?
Stephanie: If you support the person without encroaching on their independence (for example, saying, “I believe in you; this is a challenge, but you can handle it”), you will help him feel confident in himself. Empathy, as observations show, is also effective: you need to listen carefully when your partner wants to share something, and in general, show warmth and love.
Has anything you learned during your research changed your own attitudes?
Janice: Yes – the idea of paying attention to relationships; what matters is how you talk about them and think about them. And also, if your partner is sick, it is very important to take care of yourself as much as you do about him.
My husband has Alzheimer’s. When he was first diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, I felt like a train was rushing towards me. Our lives are very closely intertwined. My husband was my main research assistant. And we have a really good, close relationship.
I tried to make sure that I had a rich life outside of marriage (for example, communication with friends plays an important role), and began to take more care of my own health. I know all too well what happens when people don’t take care of themselves.
Could breaking up also cause anxiety, depression and stress? And what’s worse for your health – living in an imperfect relationship or being alone?
Stephanie: The data is ambiguous. One study found that single people have lower blood pressure than those who live in unhappy marriages. And in another study, it was found that people living alone and living in unhappy marriages experience equally severe pain with rheumatoid arthritis. However, in both cases, happily married people felt better than others.
When it comes to divorce, many do well and recover quickly, but a minority (10 to 15 percent) face increased health risks.
When it comes to loneliness, you can feel lonely in marriage. Well, if you are not married / not married, then you need to communicate more with friends and family – this is really very important.
Interview by Ricky Rusting
Original text: www.washingtonpost.com
Translation: publishing house “MYTH”
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If you want to build a harmonious relationship, reduce the number of quarrels with your partner and create a truly happy family, we recommend reading the book by Sue Johnson, professor of clinical psychology, “Hold Me Tight.”