When your marriage is on the rocks, your physical health suffers, too.
It's a connection researchers have long noted. Bolstering it are the results of study that a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor helped conduct. It looked at the relationship between marriage and health by analyzing 20 years of data on 1,681 people married throughout the two decades.
Before this study, the longest research covered eight years. Cody Hollist, director of the marriage and family therapy program at UNL and co-author of the report, said the new research found direct connections between trouble in a couple's relationship and health problems that followed.
The value of the findings, Hollist said, is in the strong reminder to doctors and family counselors that health and happiness at home are connected.
“As a physician, I need to pay attention to how your marriage is doing because I know that's going to help improve your health long-term,” Hollist said. “As a therapist, I also need to pay attention to your health.”
For younger couples, the health problems tended to surface when they felt lacking in marital happiness — day-to-day feelings about the quality of a couple's relationship, whether they felt like friends and enjoyed the same things.
In older couples, Hollist said, the health problems arose when they faced significant marital problems that led to thinking about divorce and questions about whether they married the right person.
There wasn't enough detail in the research to determine what type of maladies the couples suffered, Hollist said, or whether one of the problems caused the other.
The research seems to back up two other recent studies: one that showed married people are more likely to survive cancer, and another that indicated married people, both men and women, have better chances of surviving a heart attack and having a long, healthy life.
Richard B. Miller of Brigham Young University was the lead author of the latest report, which was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in June. The data used in the study were collected by Penn State University researchers six times between 1980 and 2000 on several variables affecting marital instability. The researchers excluded anyone who divorced during the 20 years and considered only legally married couples.
Thomas Guck, professor of family medicine and director of behavioral sciences at Creighton University School of Medicine, said the conclusions reflect the broader question that physicians and psychologists should always be asking: What does your social support network look like?
Research has long shown that support at home improves recovery. Guck thinks focus on this has been getting stronger over the years as it's taught more consistently to medical students. Licensing exams often require a candidate to ask about those kinds of issues during an exam with a patient.
“Physicians are not treating charts. They're treating people, in their context,” Guck said. “They not only have a right but an obligation to investigate the home life.”