‘You’re killing me’: Marital conflict is lethal, studies show
Keen to know if you’re going to live long and well … or drop off the perch prematurely? Instead of looking in the mirror for signs of physical decay, take a good look at your spouse.
If he or she is a font of misery, you’re more likely headed to an early grave.
Or as a Dutch happiness researcher concluded, in a study published this week: “Spousal life satisfaction predicted mortality as strongly as (and even more robustly than) an individual’s own life satisfaction.”
The study, by Dr Olga Stavrova, assistant professor in the Department of Social Psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, is the latest evidence for the old adage: Happy wife, happy life.
Unhappy spouses take each other to the grave
Dr Stavrova examined eight years worth of data from a nationally representative survey of about 4400 US couples (99 per cent heterosexual) who were over the age of 50.
The couples reported on personal life satisfaction, lifestyle, perceived partner support and medical history.
At the end of eight years, about 16 per cent of participants had died.
Perhaps not surprisingly, they tended to be older, male, less educated, less wealthy, less physically active, and in poorer health than those who were still alive.
They also tended to report lower relationship satisfaction, lower life satisfaction, and having a partner who also reported lower life satisfaction.
The spouses of participants who died were also more likely to pass away within the eight-year observation period than were spouses of participants who were still living.
From this, you’d reasonably conclude that the people who died tended to be hard-luck stories – couples married to a life less promising.
Couples can drag each other down
Except, when looking at all the data – including that of the couples who were happy with their lives – it became apparent that marriage served as an incubator and amplifier of lifestyle and satisfaction tendencies – with the net result that partners drag each other down, or lift each other up.
“The data show that spousal life satisfaction was associated with mortality, regardless of individuals’ socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, or their physical health status,” said Dr Stavrova, in a prepared statement.
“This research might have implications for questions such as what attributes we should pay attention to when selecting our spouse or partner and whether healthy lifestyle recommendations should target couples (or households) rather than individuals.”
If the issue of life satisfaction seems wishy-washy, less to do with marriage than the luck of the draw, consider the following:
In a study published in August last year, researchers from Ohio State University found that “married people who fight nastily are more likely to suffer from leaky guts – a problem that unleashes bacteria into the blood and can drive up disease-causing inflammation.” How did they discover this?
By recruiting 43 healthy married couples, and poking them with a stick, encouraging them to discuss and try to resolve a problem likely to provoke strong disagreement.
As it goes with couples and a hot-button issue, once they got started … the tone soured.
Blood samples were taken after the hammer and tongs were put away. The researchers found “a strong, significant link between hostility and the biomarker LBP, which indicates the presence of bacteria in the blood”.
And there was a strong link between that biomarker and evidence of inflammation. Compared to participants with the lowest LBP, those with the highest LBP had 79 per cent higher levels of C-reactive protein, the primary biomarker of inflammation.
In other words, the couples infected one another.
The Ohio researchers, in a 2005 study, found that couples wracked by hostility were slower to heal from wounds. The couples in that experiment were actually punctured.
A 2014 study from Michigan State University sociologists found that a bad marriage literally causes a broken heart in the form of heightened risk of cardio-vascular disease.
My personal favourite is a 2014 study from the University of Copenhagen that found, as the ABC reported, “constant conflict from a nagging wife can triple the chances of an early death”.
For the man.
“Women reported much the same stresses from a demanding spouse, but it was less likely to kill them.”
And to all those getting married this weekend: Mazel tov!