Can Marital Stress Ruin Your Health?
New research conducted at Ohio State University has shown that hostile marital relations can result in higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. So, what constitutes marital hostility? According to Kiecolt-Glaser et al. (2005), the hallmarks of marital distress include hostility, sarcasm, and withdrawal/disengagement. Not only do these actions take a toll on partners emotionally, but it has come to light in this study, as well as others, that there can be significant toll to pay physically.
In this new study, it was shown that marital stress works to initiate/worsen inflammation by increasing gut permeability, also known as 'leaky gut'. This type of inflammation, especially if experienced over extended periods of time can have some serious consequences, including depression, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, slower wound healing, increased risk of illness and illness severity, as well as increasing the risk of recurrent coronary events three-fold.
The study focused on 43 healthy married couples, all of whom had been married for at least 3 years, between the ages of 24 and 61. The couples were instructed to engage in a marital problem discussion, in which they were to discuss and try to resolve one or more marital issues that a previous interviewer deemed to be the most conflict-producing. Topics included money, communication, and in-laws and were discussed for 20 minutes. After the discussions were completed the couples were tested for several inflammatory markers (IL-6, TNF-alpha, CRP, and LBP). The researchers found that there were indeed elevated levels of markers associated with bacterial translocation with increased stress - meaning that more stress led to an increased ability of gut bacteria to migrate out of the intestinal system to elsewhere in the body. It has also been found (in a different study) that the effects of emotional reactivity to stressors persisted, and spilled over to increase the effects of the next day's conflicts.
Why is this significant?
Well, marital stress is something that many (if not all) couples encounter at some point in their relationship - married or not! However, if this stress is prolonged or goes unresolved it can wreak havoc on more than just a person's mental/emotional state. In fact, the entire body becomes affected by a pro-inflammatory cascade due to increased gut permeability, leading to a vast array of health implications. Repressed feelings and stress can undoubtedly play a role in disease, both mental and physical, and although counselling is still sometimes seen as 'taboo', it should not be overlooked as a way to aid any relationship. This study shows not only the far-reaching health effects of hostility within a marriage, but also serves as a reminder of the importance of healthy communication and problem solving within any relationship.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., et al. “Marital Distress, Depression, and a Leaky Gut: Translocation of Bacterial Endotoxin as a Pathway to Inflammation.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol. 98, 2018, pp. 52–60., doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2018.08.007.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., Loving, T.J., Stowell, J.R., Malarkey, W.B., Lemeshow, S., Dickinson, S.L., Glaser, R., 2005. Hostile marital interactions, proinflammatory cytokine production, and wound healing. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 62, 1377–1384.