Marital ups and downs may be bad for men’s health, study suggests

Those who described their relationship as changing over time had a greater risk of cardiovascular problems

By Jenny Cook

We all know the effect that arguing with a partner can have on your emotions, but new research suggests that marital ups and downs can even go so far to impact cardiovascular health and increase the risk of life-threatening conditions such as heart attacks and strokes – at least in men.

Yes, despite several studies showing marriage to have health-protective powers, it seems that it is the quality of a relationship that really matters when it comes to long-term wellbeing.

The study

Researchers looked at 19 years’ worth of data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to identify the links between relationship quality over time and cardiovascular risk in married men. Cardiovascular risk was chosen as a measure because it is a common health risk, with men are more likely to suffer heart conditions and display symptoms at an earlier age compared to women.

The married men who took part in the study – all of whom were also fathers – completed questionnaires to assess their relationship quality when their children were aged three, and again when they were aged nine. They were asked to rank their relationships as ‘consistently good’, ‘consistently bad’, ‘improving’ or ‘deteriorating’. In addition, the researchers also took note of a range of health metrics (including – but not limited to – blood pressure, resting heart rate and BMI) , with the final measurements recorded when the men’s children reached the age of 19.

It was found that those who ranked their relationships as improving or worsening had an increased risk of cardiovascular problems – signified by increased levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol and worse diastolic blood pressure readings. Interestingly, though, there was not much difference between those men who described their relationships as ‘consistently good’ or ‘consistently bad’, suggesting that it is the ‘ups and downs’ of marriage life (rather than the perceived quality) that poses a health risk. The authors concluded:

“Changes in the quality of a marital relationship appear to predict CVD [cardiovascular disease] risk, though consistently good or poor relationship groups were not very different.”

When discussing possible explanations, they wrote:

“The similarity of CVD risk factors for men in persistently good and bad marriages suggests a number of possibilities; that quality of marital relationship is unimportant; that there could be some habituation after a period of time—so the emotional effects of marital quality are no longer salient or reporting bias… Alternatively, reporting marital status at one time point, rather than many as in the present study, may be a better measure of a personality trait (‘glass half empty or half full’) rather than marital quality per se, which is better captured by relative changes over time. If personality trait is itself unrelated to CVD risk factors, then this would mask true differences by marital quality.”

However, there are some clear gaps in this study – such as, the fact that it is purely observational and relies on self-reporting – that mean it should be taken with a pinch of salt. Also, there were a large number of participants who dropped out across the duration of the study and, of course, it only focusses on men.

The study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

 

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