When being married makes being sick worse

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Research suggests that being happily married can have a big effect on helping us recover from serious health crises like a heart attack. For men, in fact, marriage doesn’t even have to be particularly happy to increase positive health outcomes. Just the mere state of being married, happily or miserably, apparently leads to better outcomes in males.

But not so for women. A study from the University of Utah, for example, tells us that after 15 years of follow-up, researchers found that 83% of happily wedded wives were still alive after their cardiac bypass surgery, versus only 28% of women in unhappy marriages.  They also found that 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 – a cluster of known risk factors for cardiovascular disease. And in 2006, the American Journal of Cardiology published a study that found patients with both severe heart disease and poor marriages had a four times higher risk of dying over a four-year period.

So consider for example, how the day-to-day reality described by these heart patients might affect their prognoses:    

RT, age 57: 

“I know my husband is put off by having to do things I ask of him. Even after surgery or during one of my really bad days. I’d rather do for myself than to even ask him.

“I care for him mostly, he’s got mild cognitive impairment, diabetes, Hepatitis C, is a recovering alcoholic and was a casual drug user. 

“Lately I’m wondering if I’m going to be able to handle caring for him long term. I just wish there was someone caring for me when I could use help.”

HI, age 48:

“Since 2007, I’ve had bypass surgery, two cardiac stents implanted, cardiac ablation, and Coronary Microvascular Disease. My hubby believes (false beliefs can be as strong as truth) that my illness is a personal rejection of him.

“After years of me waiting on him, taking care of him and everything else, I can no longer do it, so he feels rejected –  like he’s getting a bum deal.

“Of course, in a healthy relationship the hubby would be there for his wife.”

SY, age 55:

“Because I feel less-than-great and activities requiring more than a little puff are exhausting me, I guess I have crossed over to the other side; I’ve had a ‘widow maker’ heart attack and now have congestive heart failure.

“I am having a LOT of problems with my husband, who totally believes that I made myself ill. What a load of codswallop. I can barely lift my head in the morning, and at night I collapse in a dead heap. I am working full-time.  I am terrified, and what is going to happen to me?”

IH, age 59: 

“When I was first told by my doctor that I had a problem with my Aortic valve, I was quite upset.  I was to go grocery shopping after this trip to the doctor’s office, but needless to say I did not go shopping. All my husband said when he found out about my diagnosis was: ‘Well, I guess there will be nothing for supper!’ Now you know why he is my ex . . . ”

BZ, age 58:

“I had my sudden, out-of-the-blue heart attack on Mother’s Day 2011. My son asked me ‘What’s wrong, Mom?’  My husband denied I was sick. I wanted to go to the Emergency Care Center near our home. Hubs said: ‘Take a pill and lie down, it’s just anxiety!’  He argued with me and my son all the way to hospital.  Twelve hours later,  I woke up in the intensive care unit after a triple bypass and two stents implanted from having three Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissections. The cardiologist said if I hadn’t arrived just when I did, I would have died.

“But nothing changed in how my hubs treated me. All week in the hospital, my hubs kept telling me I didn’t have a heart attack. On discharge day, I asked the doctor in front of him if indeed I had a heart attack, and the doctor looked at me with a look of incredulity and said ‘Of course you did!’ Hubs had nothing to say.

“He never went to any follow-up appointments with me. Two months after the heart attack, he ranted at me in front of my best friend about how lazy I was and how he’d had to do everything around the house for the last eight weeks and he was exhausted! 

“PS: It is now over a year later and I live by myself. I choose life on my terms now. I don’t need to take care of a cold, unfeeling man.  And now I feel so much lighter! If they can’t be empathetic when we’re healthy (and we knew this), then they won’t be there for us when we’re sick.”

♥  ♥ 

My own non-professional advice to these women and any others struggling with both a chronic diagnosis and a toxic relationship:

“Bottom line: this guy is killing you on the installment plan. Get out now while you still have the strength to leave a sizeable boot print on his sorry ass.”

In short, the state of being married is not necessarily a guarantee that women will be supported by their spouses during recuperation from chronic illness.

And what about single, divorced or women who are “between husbands”?  After accounting for a variety of factors, the University of Utah researchers reported no statistically significant differences between outcomes of happily married female heart disease survivors and their unmarried counterparts.

Negative interpersonal behaviours, such as hostility and criticism during conflict in married relationships, have been linked to negative impacts on mental health. In fact, according to a 2003 article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, single people tend to have better mental health than those who remain in a tumultuous marriage.

And a 2009 study of married couples conducted at the University of Washington in Seattle found that men are seven times more likely to leave a relationship because of their partner’s serious illness than wives are.

The prognosis, for women particularly, seems directly linked to marriage quality.

Dr. Sheldon Tobe of The Heart & Stroke Foundation adds that even though women are more physically affected by marital relationships than men are, these effects can actually work to our benefit.  His research showed that a happy marriage, for example, 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.”

Another report from the American Psychological Association helps to explain this:

“Wives need to feel satisfied in their relationships to reap a heart health dividend, but the payoff for marital bliss is even greater for women than for men. The quality of a relationship weighs heavily on the chance of survival for women. Women in fulfilled relationships have a survival rate of nearly four times that of women in unsatisfying or unhappy marriages.”

♥  ♥ 

And speaking of happy marriages . . .   I’d like to wish my favourite daughter Larissa sunshine and blue skies for this Saturday’s picturesque farm wedding as our family and friends celebrate her marriage to her longtime sweetie, Randy.  Big hugs and kisses to both of you from your very happy Mama!

See also:


Q:  How has the quality of your marriage affected your own health?



32 thoughts on “When being married makes being sick worse

  1. I’ve been married for 20 years (I’m 52), miserable for the past 10 and sick for the past 7. I have idiopathic small fiber neuropathy, P.O.T.S., Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and a sudden spike of bad cholesterol (heart attack & stroke territory, GP is trying to figure out why).

    Although my husband will take me to my appointments, he’s always on his phone during them. He doesn’t think twice about taking jobs across the country or in other parts of the world. He won’t let me hire someone to help when he’s gone and he’s the only help I have, so I have to push myself when he’s gone which puts my body into flare up mode. I have no friends and even if my family lived near me they’re just like him (not only did I marry my parents, I married all my siblings too).

    I see a therapist twice a week, am on medicine for anxiety and depression and know that my relationship is killing me, but where do I go? Who do I call when I have no one? I know I will come out of this a better, stronger woman, but I can’t deny that this has been the most difficult time of my entire life. Worse than middle school and that’s hard to beat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello June – as you probably know by now, there is a price for everything. There’s a price to pay if you leave this relationship, and it seems that there’s a price to pay if you stay in a relationship you describe as “killing” you.

      What would you advise ME or any other woman to do if we described to you a relationship like that? That’s a clue to making your own decision. But advice from me or other people doesn’t matter – you need to make up your own mind.

      I’m so glad you are seeing a therapist twice a week. That’s such a positive step in deciding what’s next: please tell your therapist that from now on, you need his/her help in coming up with a concrete action plan each week.

      And you also say you can see yourself “coming out of this a better, stronger woman”, but only YOU can take that first step. Good luck in deciding.


      1. “What would you advise ME or any other woman to do if we described to you a relationship like that?”

        If I was still taking my health for granted (like I was 7 years ago) I’d say RUN! But now I’m not so sure. I can’t run because I can’t walk, shower, cook, dry my hair, fold clothes, pack a box, dust a shelf w/o my HR skyrocketing to over 180bpm.

        My advice to anyone who is healthy, in an unhappy marriage and reading this is, don’t wait, it won’t get better on its own, either figure it out or leave but don’t wait for it to fix itself or you might get stuck forever depending on a person who makes you feel worse.

        Thanks for your reply and this site. Yesterday was a dark day for me, but after reading your posts and the replies I realized I’m not alone.


        1. June, I wanted to add to my first response (below): I also struggle to do the things like you mentioned above, but I know my health really declined over the years, and the emotional abuse in my past marriage was a massive contributor to that. I was the most unwell I’ve ever been when my ex finally left.

          I didn’t know how life would be on my own with my 4 precious children, but I knew I had been the one carrying the weight of life’s responsibilities throughout my marriage, so I knew my ex not being there wouldn’t change that.

          In fact what I found was I felt much more well as his poor treatment of me was no longer in my home.

          He made the divorce very hard for me, so it was very difficult at times, but thankfully he was gone. My children no longer had to see how their dad treated me (well they see it a little still now,) but I am striving to help our home feel like a place of safety/kindness and love.

          My children were affected from the divorce and my past marriage, so they have been very challenging to deal with at times, but slowly it is getting easier and is so so much better than it was before. I am grateful my children don’t have to see their mom treated so unkindly anymore and I’m grateful I can teach my children how a relationship/marriage should be, how they should be treated and treat others in their lives.

          So being a single parent has been really hard at times, but at least I know it has felt hard due to the work it takes to heal from such difficult experiences.

          I’d rather feel that kind of hard, then feel desperate like I did from being in an emotionally abusive marriage. I struggle with money to survive as I am still not well enough to work yet (and that’s one of the reasons I look for support from charities in the community,) but I know as I keep gradually working on taking care of my health in a better way, reducing stress in life and finding greater peace, that life’s challenges will feel lighter and I will be able to manage my health more easily.

          You truly are strong – Remember that.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ruth, thank you for such an important point: staying in a bad relationship when you have children is teaching those kids a big life lesson: it’s teaching daughters that women should just stay and put up with abuse, and it’s teaching sons that men can get away with treating women like this. Those are very dangerous lessons to learn, and can take a lifetime of therapy for them to unlearn.

            You write: “I’m grateful I can teach my children how a relationship/marriage should be, how they should be treated and treat others in their lives.” That is brilliant advice that should be heeded by every woman with children who is choosing to live in a bad relationship because they cannot believe that leaving is better than staying.

            I hope you continue to heal and improve as time goes on. You’re my hero, Ruth… ♥


    2. I just wanted to write and send you love, June.

      I truly understand how hard it is to be chronically ill when married, but also when on your own. We need to remember how strong we are, knowing we carry on through such great challenges.

      I am trying to look into charities that support/help people who experience ill health etc. One of the charities in the UK sends a person from their organisation out once a week for 12 weeks, and they help you with what you need the most help with.

      For me it was trying to simplify my paperwork which I can’t keep on top of due to my health. I am always extremely behind with paperwork, but their help gave me the hope I needed. I struggle with most day to day activities, but I know there are support systems out there if we look into it.

      It’s just finding out who you can call. In the UK we can ask Citizens Advice for numbers/information or the Jobs centre, even our Doctor, and I’m sure other organisations have information too.

      We don’t always realise the help that there is out in our communities, even if it is just meeting with people who have similar health conditions so we can feel understood. I’m working on looking into finding more support as I really struggle, so I try to remember to trust in doing one thing at a time.

      Take care of you. Also there are so many women who pay for people to come and help them in the home (clean etc.) whether they are healthy or not, so trust in what you know is best for you.

      With love and hugs,

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for this, Ruth. You probably don’t know this, but you have helped many women reading your wise words today.

        What seems to have frozen some women into inaction, even those who know they *should* leave a toxic relationship, is that they just don’t believe they’ll have any other supports “out there” compared to what they’re receiving if they stay in the toxic marriage (even as they confirm that their partner is utterly NON-supportive).

        But as you have found, once you start lining up those supports (as opposed to insisting that there is NOBODY who can help you as an excuse for staying), each step becomes a potential option.

        Love and hugs back to you…


  2. I had my SCAD heart attack at the age of 33, 10 days after having my 3rd child. I received 2 stents.

    While I was in cardiac ICU my husband stayed for 15 mins and then left. My husband didn’t acknowledge I had an actual true heart attack until a year later. He refuses to go to any appointment with me.

    He’s called me a baby for not wanting to be alone in the hospital. He’s told me I needed to get a job and pay for my own medical bills. He constantly works overtime so he doesn’t have to deal with me or the kids. In the beginning before all this, it was never our money or our happiness, just his.

    The most hurtful thing right now is he’s wanting me to get fixed instead of him cause he’s too scared to do it. I told him I’m so scared to come off my plavix and just the surgery in general, not one word from him. I’ve only had our 3 children, a heart attack and a blood clot scare (never came to the hospital for that one). I’m so miserable and scared.

    Thanks for letting me vent.


    1. Dear Melissa,
      I replied to June’s comment above and I don’t know if it might help you in any way, as I know I need support due to my ill health.

      It is so so hard when we don’t feel loved/supported through our health struggles. I became extremely unwell the last few years of a 15 year marriage. My health gradually became worse and worse over the last 10 years.

      I believed I was doing the right thing wanting to keep our family together. My ex and I had 4 children together, but now I know I should have asked him to leave if he wasn’t willing to change (long term emotional abuse.)

      I became a shell of a person. I didn’t realise I was enabling his treatment of me by not making him leave unless he treated me better, so I’ve had to learn how to love myself better, and am still working on that. I tried to tell my ex how I felt throughout our past marriage, but my feelings fell on deaf ears, so in many ways I gave up, just hoping he would change and remember the woman he married, who he once said he loved.

      Something had to give, and in the end he left due to having an affair. I think he didn’t find being a father/husband very easy and it was easier for him to escape his responsibilities. When I met him, I know he wanted to be a good husband/father, but he just didn’t know how, and I think that was due to his own father not being the example he needed.

      Pride often plays a massive part too, as my ex would never ask for help with his own struggles, and wasn’t willing to go to counselling with me to try and help our marriage/understand each other. He just ended up resenting me and blaming me for all of his problems in life.

      I made him leave when I found out about his emotional affair/saying he loved someone else. I was in such a mess emotionally at that time, that I still tried to save our marriage by reaching out to him (crazy, as he had treated me so badly.)

      What I wanted to say is that my health improved so much once he left. My health conditions remained, but my debilitating symptoms started to fade away, and I found life so much easier on my own.

      I can’t tell you it’s been easy, as it’s still been so very hard at times, but I know that’s because we can’t control how our health will affect us, also because I am still learning how to take better care of myself and get the help I need. I know it’s one step at a time, and I’m learning to trust in the process of learning how to truly love myself, find the help I need and simplifying my life as much as I can.

      I know there is help out there, we just need to find that belief, courage and ounce of strength to pick up the phone or make an appointment to see if we can be directed to people that might be able to lighten our load in some way, or help alleviate our symptoms even just a little. I’m learning to let go of the fears that have built up over the years, which ended up making me feel frozen in life, but again I’m learning to trust the process/time it takes to heal, trusting whatever effort I can give each day, no matter how small.

      Remember the strong AMAZING woman you are. We truly can’t be there for others if we don’t take care of ourselves first. We need to learn to put our health first, and know we deserve to be treated with respect.

      Please read my reply to June, as I know there are charities that can help us, especially when we are struggling so very much. I’m trying to to do that too, and I’m definitely off the starting blocks now. I’m just trying to get rid of my fears, and I know one day most of my fears can/will go away.

      There was a time when I didn’t have those fears, and I know I can find that woman hidden inside me again. We really are strong, we just need to remember that.

      Sending you love,
      From Ruth

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ruth, you ARE a “strong AMAZING woman” too. When you write, “in many ways I gave up, just hoping he would change and remember the woman he married, who he once said he loved”, you spoke for many other women who keep hoping that what’s happening is not really happening, despite the day to day evidence telling them quite clearly exactly what IS happening.

        It’s as if we insist on believing that this bad behaviour is not the “real” him. Oh, yes. It is. The great Maya Angelou once said: “When people show you who they are, BELIEVE THEM!”

        The longer we willingly agree to disbelieve what is going on right under our noses, waiting for others to change, the harder it becomes to walk away…

        Thank you for your very realistic assessment that getting out of a bad relationship is NOT easy, not at all. But the degree of difficulty in itself doesn’t mean it isn’t the right choice. Thank you for sharing your perspective here.


  3. Hi Carolyn, this is really important research could you give me the references or are they somewhere on the website? Thanks.


  4. My husband left me for another woman (a hospice nurse, believe or not) during my winning battle with breast and advanced ovarian cancer. Yes, our marriage was rocky. In fact, we were separated when I learned of my cancer. My husband had to move back home for financial reasons. But I thought we’d work on things as I still loved him.

    And then I found out he’d been cheating on me before my surgery (I had 18 chemo treatments before my surgery and was as bald as he). He continued the affair until my post-chemo treatment. I discovered the affair just by the way he was acting. After the discovery, he moved in with this jackass and my fragile health took a turn for the worse. I lost 20 pounds, missed several chemo treatments, and was required to have two blood transfusions.

    I became so depressed I was involuntarily committed to a psych hospital TWICE, all the while being told it was MY fault. He didn’t visit me there; he never checked to see if I needed anything while I underwent my post-chemo, it was THE WORST part of my life. Now he’s divorcing me!!! I wish he was dead as he has not only hurt me, he’s hurt my son and his young family. And the nurse should have her license removed.


    1. I’m so sorry you had no support when you really needed it most. A man who’s in a “rocky” marriage and already separated when a catastrophic diagnosis hits the woman who is still his wife would have to be a pretty stand-up guy to move back in and start acting supportive. Your hubby was not. You may have been hoping you’d work on your marriage when he moved back in, but based on results, he was already gone – and it definitely takes two to work on a relationship. It’s hard enough to get through a medical crisis in the family when a couple’s relationship is strong and loving, but virtually impossible when that marriage is rocky.

      You have no need to voluntarily be with anybody, ever, who no longer wants to be there. You don’t believe this now, but one day, you WILL look back at this horrible time and send this man a thank-you card for freeing you from a long future with him. Meanwhile, don’t spend an ounce of your limited energy wishing him dead. I hope you’re getting some quality talk therapy to help you get through this hurt and anger. Read this story written by a husband who IS actually a stand-up guy….

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Without getting personal, I will just say that marriage has been bad…

    I am completely experiencing the symptoms of chronic stress and burnout. Many people view me as weak, but I don’t think too many people could have survived what I’ve been through.

    About ten years ago when I was cleaning up tree branches after some severe weather, I felt a very acute pain in my chest out of nowhere and had difficulty breathing. It felt just like the way it feels after you run in cold weather. When I rested, it went away. This has happened three more times and the most recent was about a year ago… It happens with exertion. I exert myself like this all the time, but it seems to be very random when it occurs.

    Starting about in the last six months, I’ve been experiencing intermittent pain/twinges left of the sternum in my chest and bouts of pain in my neck, my shoulder and my left arm all the way down to my hand with tingling and numbness. This generally occurs when I’m lying down in bed. I’ve noticed it when my stress level is particularly high at times. I believe I have MVD.

    I went to the hospital and it showed my arteries to be clear; the stress test came up normal, as well as blood enzymes and EKG (big surprise). I do have ischemia. I was told I probably had GERD and a pulled muscle. I also got the lovely and very brief news that my lung x-ray appears to show that I have emphysema…not from smoking.

    Of course, the emergency room and other doctors would not elaborate on my lung x ray, because I was there for chest pain that brought the focus to my heart and so they ignored my lungs. So, at this point, I have no more knowledge of what is going on with my lungs, but I do believe I am a ripe candidate for a heart attack and I am trying to take steps to prevent it.


    1. Survivor, right now you really don’t know if your symptoms are heart-related or not, but you DO need to see your family physician immediately for a full discussion about this new emphysema diagnosis, as well as a plan to manage this chronic stress and burnout you’re experiencing.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, Carolyn. This is a really outstanding post and very telling.

    These women’s stories amazed and horrified me, and your advice to them about getting out of toxic relationships is well-said. Thank you for leaving your comment and link to this post on my “First Comes Cancer, Then Comes Divorce” post. Here’s the link to that popular post if anyone wants to see another yet toxic relationship in action.

    Thank you for addressing the unhappy-marriage component when it comes to women’s health. Your piece seems like a companion piece to mine.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. We stay because we have no options. We stay because we are selfless and would rather suffer than allow our children to go through a nasty divorce, plus we would lose everything, house cars, my children would suffer. I am perminatly disabled, lost my ssi case twice so decided to try to work and make a little money to pay off a few credit cards, but the more I work, the worse my health gets and I end up on floor with a seizure, for which I can’t tell my Dr or she will suspend my drivers license. I have no ability to support me and my daughter on our own, yes I will probably get alimony and child support, but that’s after I’ve moved. How to come up with rent plus deposit, about $1400 total, is impossible. I just keep telling myself to put one foot in front of the other, treat people with kindness, and try to focus on my daughter. I don’t have family to turn to, I’ve contacted several organizations, but I’m not abused so no help. I’m exhausted and so alone.


        1. I’m with you! Nobody understands why we stay, yet none of the people judging us offer to help us financially get started. I’ve been living a similar story to yours, but now I’m scared to death as my husband informed me in November he wants a divorce and we are slowly working towards that (living like roommates until our daughter graduates in May). So I’m not sure what I recommend cause I’ve stayed for years only to end up in the same place I would’ve been in had I left years ago instead. It’s just heartbreaking to give 30 years of your life to someone to only have them discard you when you become ill.


          1. T.B, you’re so right, it IS heartbreaking, after all those years. I was moved by what you said, though: “I’ve stayed for years only to end up in the same place I would’ve been in had I left years ago instead”. Now THAT is truly heartbreaking… So you’ll soon have a new chance (a decision made by your husband, sounds like, not you) to start a new life and demonstrate to your daughter a life without fear of being discarded anymore. Best of luck to you…


  7. Ditto Jetgirl’s reply!

    This morning, I awoke to him cleaning out the now repaired fridge. I married an angel, but not an angel without his own independent judgements about my disease. Nobody is perfect I guess…not even ME!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Hi Carolyn,

    My husband Daryl was very supportive and caring after my heart attack. He had no problem with doing extra things around the house, he even went on same heart diet as me but eventually he had to cook in separate pots, he had to have a little salt!

    I was 46 at the time and was recovering well until 7 months after my heart attack, husband suddenly died from a bee sting.

    Of course my health declined fast. With the help of family and good friends, I started back to rehab and work and started taking care of myself. Today,it’s been a little over a year since my husband’s death and still dealing with depression, but I am in a good state physically at this point.

    So, for the men out there, your compassion and love does make all the difference for married women in their recovery.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, Sherrie. My condolences on such a great loss. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience of a supportive and caring guy. Take care. XOXOX

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Carolyn, I got one of the good ones (although there are still times I could strangle him).

    I would not have survived the mis-diagnoses, the surgeries, the heart attack, and this hellish incapacitation without his support, willingness to carry the financial burden, and funny, funny view of life. Not to say that it is all roses since he can still drive me insane like any one else’s spouse.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You did get a good one, JetGirl – give him an extra big hug today for that. Count your blessings, and try not to kill him . . .


    2. This is has to be one of my favorite articles that I have read so far on your site.

      I read primarily to spread the word about heart disease as I do not have it, but more people in my family have died from a heart attack or heart disease than I care to admit to and I am working on my own prevention now at 34. With that being said, I try to be a champion and supporter for those who I love. ( I do have tachycardia that is induced by caffeine)

      This article really hit home for me with the general message that STRESS/QUALITY OF LIFE MATTER!!!

      I was in a very abusive relationship for years and had a very stressful job as a pharmaceutical rep. (Also another reason I am a heart/health advocate). During this time, I had 4 miscarriages in 2 years due to stress from work and home. After all of that, I lost my job and instantly became pregnant.

      But I believe if he had been supportive with such a high stress job I probably could have become pregnant early. Reading this article confirmed what I knew in my heart at the time.

      I am no longer in that relationship and have peace that I am never willing to give up.

      Thank you ladies for sharing your stories as I plan to share in my circles. You never know how they affect someone.

      Liked by 2 people

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