Poor marriage = poor heart health for women

by Carolyn Thomas     @HeartSisters

Did you know that men who are married – happily or not – are generally far healthier than their unmarried buddies?  A man’s physical health apparently benefits simply from the state of being married, whether or not he rates it as a good marriage.

But a woman’s overall health can be significantly threatened by trouble at home, according to researchers at the University of Utah.(1)  Women respond to unhappy marriages by being three times more likely to develop metabolic syndrome – a cluster of serious cardiac risk factors that can lead to heart disease.  

Women who report high levels of marital strain also report depression, high blood pressure, high LDL (bad) cholesterol, obesity and other signs of metabolic syndrome.

The Utah researchers recruited 280 couples married an average of 20 years. Each couple was assessed on:

  • the positive aspects of their marriage, (emotional warmth, mutual support, ability to confide secrets to each other)
  • the negative aspects (arguments, feelings of hostility, frequency and severity of disagreements)
  • symptoms of depression

Couples with pre-existing heart disease were excluded. Researchers found that both men and women were more likely to display symptoms of depression if they reported marital strain. However, men did not have a related increase in other health problems. Women, on the other hand, saw their risk of metabolic syndrome go up when they experienced more negative aspects of marriage compared to women with more positive aspects.

Happily married women face a significantly lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome than their unhappily married counterparts. But women who are widowed had nearly six times the risk of developing metabolic syndrome.

What about single, divorced or women who are “between husbands”?  After accounting for a variety of factors, there were no statistically significant differences between happily married women and unmarried women.

Women who were consistently dissatisfied with their marriage had three times the risk of developing metabolic syndrome compared with happily-married women. But this finding didn’t hold for women who were only dissatisfied with their marriage for a short-term period. Women who reported marital satisfaction following only one assessment had a risk of developing metabolic syndrome similar to that of the happily married women.  The Utah researchers wrote:

“Our data showing that marital quality predicts subsequent metabolic syndrome suggest the clinical utility of assessing marital quality as an integral part of the patient’s social history.”

Dr. Sheldon Tobe of The Heart & Stroke Foundation also found that women are more physically affected by relationships than men are – but that these effects can actually work to our benefit.  His research showed that a happy marriage could help cancel out the blood pressure-raising effects of a very stressful job:

“We found that women who had a supportive spouse at home were more immune to the effects of job strain. However, people who had less supportive spouses or who experienced stresses from their relationships at home were much more sensitive to the effects of job strain.”

Find out more from Mayo Clinic about the symptoms, causes and prevention of metabolic syndrome.

© Carolyn Thomas   www.myheartsisters.org

(1)  Nancy Henry, Tim Smith. University of Utah. Presented to the 2009 American Psychosomatic Society’s annual meeting, Chicago.

NOTE from CAROLYN:  I wrote much more about women’s lived experience in my book A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).  You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

See also:

Marriage triples our bypass surgery survival rates – but only if it’s happy

When being married makes being sick worse

“Stress creep”: are you like the frog in the pot of boiling water?

Four ingredients in the heart patient’s recipe for stress

Is everyday stress gnawing at your arteries?

A heart patient’s guide to the three stages of chronic stress

Is family stress hurting your heart?

Women’s heart disease and chronic stress

Got A minute? Try this mini-relaxation for your heart health


6 thoughts on “Poor marriage = poor heart health for women

  1. Lots of great information in this article about marriage and its link to women’s health; I have just subscribed to your website for future updates.
    Thanks from Scotland!


  2. Thank you Carolyn for this valuable information. In hindsight I now believe that decades of marital strife, day in and day out, were definitely factors in my own heart attack last year. I just soldiered on, smiling woodenly, to the outside world looking very happy with my “wonderful” husband and trying to just ignore the reality while focusing on my job, my grandkids, friends, etcetera. It was only after my heart attack when I was too ill to keep up the pretense, and I saw with my own eyes what kind of husband I had been putting up with all those years (he was now angry and impatient with me cuz I was not physically able to wait on him anymore and he had to “help” around the house – do “womens work” as he said). That’s when I knew I had to get out to save my very soul.

    My advice to all women: PAY ATTENTION. Don’t invest years of your life to misery. Take action. Get help for yourself and your relationship if possible and if it is not possible to save your marriage, please get out before the mental and emotional stress destroys your health. Most important, SPEAK UP. When issues arise in your home, find your voice, discuss issues together early, don’t bury them for years as if that’s all you deserve, as if your needs are not important. Believe me, they are.

    Carolyn, you gave advice elsewhere on this very helpful website (I forget which article?) about women needing to put themselves FIRST as their #1 priority – this applies not only when we are feeling cardiac symptoms, but also IN LIFE. We all deserve it.


  3. So what is this really all about? Men should stay in unhappy marriages but women should not? This article includes some fascinating information– thank you for this.
    William B. Doyle


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