Harvard Women's Health Watch

From the journals: Unhealthy for women not to speak up during marital spats

From the journals

Unhealthy for women not to speak up during marital spats

Married people tend to live longer and have fewer health problems than people who are unmarried, widowed, or divorced. But just having a spouse isn't necessarily protective, and not all marital interactions are healthy. Many studies have linked unhappy marriages with an increased risk for depression, heart disease, and premature mortality. How marital disharmony affects health still isn't entirely clear, but research suggests that it has something to do with the way couples interact and react during conflict. According to a study published in the July/August 2007 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, women who keep their feelings to themselves during marital arguments are at increased risk for premature death.

Researchers at Eaker Epidemiology Enterprises in Gaithersburg, Md., looked at data from 3,682 men and women in the Framingham Offspring Study, an ongoing investigation of cardiovascular disease in the children (and their spouses) of the original subjects of the Framingham Heart Study. Participants received physical exams and completed detailed questionnaires. Married subjects provided information not only about marital love, happiness, and satisfaction in general, but also about the frequency and topics of marital arguments, their reactions during these conflicts, and the effects of a spouse's work stress on home life. This is one of the first studies to include behavior — not just level of satisfaction and happiness — as a risk factor for health outcomes in married people.

Subjects were followed for 10 years. Marital happiness or satisfaction and frequency of arguments had no influence on heart disease and mortality in either sex. But other measures of marital strain did. The most striking finding was that women who said they kept their feelings to themselves during conflicts with their spouses had four times higher risk of dying as women who said they always showed their feelings. The finding held up even after taking into account other factors, including age, depression, suppressed anger, and social class.

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