When being married makes being sick worse

7 Aug

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?


23 Responses to “When being married makes being sick worse”

  1. Melissa R April 29, 2018 at 9:30 am #

    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.


  2. Bugs October 31, 2017 at 6:03 am #

    Thank you for this informative post about women’s health. Much to think about now.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Noemi August 4, 2016 at 12:51 am #

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


    • Carolyn Thomas August 4, 2016 at 5:52 am #

      A simple Google search will direct you to the two studies mentioned here.


  4. Lauri May 12, 2016 at 7:44 am #

    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.


    • Carolyn Thomas May 12, 2016 at 9:13 am #

      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. Survivor April 10, 2015 at 10:58 am #

    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.


    • Carolyn Thomas April 10, 2015 at 11:13 am #

      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. Beth Gainer July 9, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    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

    • Carolyn Thomas July 10, 2013 at 6:30 am #

      Thanks so much, Beth. I hear stories like these – and like your own – all too often; they are indeed amazing and horrifying. It is beyond me why women insist on staying in such toxic relationships even when their health is suffering as a direct result. My scheduled post on July 18th carries yet another similar warning: “When you live with a serious illness – and a bad marriage“.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Patricia A Poff February 21, 2018 at 12:32 am #

        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.


        • T. B. March 4, 2018 at 7:51 pm #

          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.


          • Carolyn Thomas March 4, 2018 at 8:06 pm #

            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. Mary August 7, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    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

    • Carolyn Thomas August 7, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

      Awwww, that’s so great, Mary! I look forward to meeting your angel when I see you at Stanford next month!


  8. MentalMakeovers August 7, 2012 at 8:42 am #

    Larissa, Congratulations and may you only show up in your Mother’s blog and talks as a shining example of health, compassion and love!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Carolyn Thomas August 7, 2012 at 12:50 pm #

      Thanks Judith – I’ll pass on your congrats to the bride! 🙂


  9. Sherrie Bullard August 7, 2012 at 7:12 am #

    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

    • Carolyn Thomas August 7, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

      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

  10. JetGirl August 7, 2012 at 4:42 am #

    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

    • Carolyn Thomas August 7, 2012 at 6:20 am #

      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 . . .


    • Katrina August 7, 2012 at 6:40 am #

      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

      • Carolyn Thomas August 7, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

        Thank you Katrina for sharing such an important personal message – you ARE a champion! Keep up the good work …

        Liked by 1 person

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