Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bad Marriages Break (Women's) Hearts

No, that title is not a juicy little morsel of schadenfreude. I'm not the kind of single who's always itching to sink my teeth into the misery of some poor unhappily married couple. Singletude wants single and married people alike to be happy. However, acquiring a marriage license doesn't guarantee happiness any more than singleness guarantees multiple cat ownership, which is why research warning of the pitfalls of the marriage made in hell is so desperately needed.

The research in question hails from the University of Utah. Ordinarily, I would pick one news report from a major media outlet and respond to it, but rather than reprinting a standard press release, most web sites chose to conduct their own interviews, so no single article captured the full picture, a fact I found interesting in itself. In summary, the study revealed a link between stressful marriages and metabolic syndrome in women.1-5 Metabolic syndrome is characterized by high blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides; low HDL, the form of cholesterol considered "good"; and obesity in the abdominal region. All these symptoms put one at increased risk of heart attack1-5, stroke1,3,4, and diabetes1-5. The study also showed a correlation between marital strife and depression in both sexes1-5, and we know that depression can lead to health problems. However, oddly enough, unhappily married men were not more likely than their contented counterparts to develop metabolic syndrome.1-5

The study followed 276 couples.1-5 Sources couldn't seem to agree on whether couples had been married for 201,3 or 272,4,5 years on average or on the participants' age range, cited alternately as 40-701 or 32-762,5. The couples filled out questionnaires about marital conflict and depression levels and were then examined at the university's health clinic. Encouragingly for the married set, only 27% of women and 22% of men reported unhappy marriages.2,5 (I say "only" because I found this figure to be low, though I'm sure any bad marriage is one bad marriage too many for the people involved.)

The gender difference in incidence of metabolic syndrome was hypothesized to be due to the more central role that relationships play in women's heads--err, lives.2 One of the study's authors, Ph.D. candidate Nancy Henry, said, "Women seem to nurture relationships more than men do and attach significance to the emotions within relationships more than men do. ...Men...don't take as much stock in relationships with respect to their self-image, their self-concept, and those kinds of things."2 The symptoms of metabolic syndrome were probably caused by the flood of stress hormones that accompany relationship conflict.1,2,5 One commentator, Christine Northam, a couples therapist, also attributed the results to "the fact that women's hormonal profile[s are] more complex than men's." She then claimed that "women...tend to worry more about their health than men [do]," presumably increasing stress.4

Only one report, based on the university's press release, mentioned that previous divorce was also a risk factor and skimmed over this bit of trivia as quickly as possible.1,3 I emphasize it here because it was in line with previous research pointing to relationship loss as the major predictor of unhappiness, not singleness.

All the articles suggested modifications to diet and exercise routines to improve cardiovascular health1-5, and two promoted counseling2,5, but all of them were careful to clarify that they weren't recommending that women ditch their husbands en masse.1-5 Instead, Dr. Tim Smith of the U. of UT hoped that partners would focus on "the quality of [their] emotional and family lives." His goals for troubled couples included "getting along better and enjoying each other more, improving [their] mood."1

While Singletude is thankful for any study that shatters the myth of the marriage panacea, it would be even better if the researchers had included single men and women as a basis for comparison. At what rate do singles develop metabolic syndrome? What are the levels of depression among singles? How do never-married singles differ on these measures from divorced or widowed singles?

Furthermore, I'm a little troubled at the attitudes toward divorce that cropped up in these articles. On one hand, much of the media preferred to ignore the finding that divorce was a significant contributor to coronary disease. As noted earlier, the loss of a relationship can have deleterious effects on both physical and psychological health. On this matter, singles advocates and the pro-marriage crowd are aligned--we both want to publicize the profound impact of divorce. Curiously, the media didn't take advantage of that opportunity here.

They did, however, make it plain that the researchers discouraged divorce. Their prescription was "improving intimate relationships,"1 as well as committing to healthier eating and exercise habits. There was no discussion of how participants could magically "improve their relationships" after 20 years or more of presumably trying to do just that. Perhaps the researchers have been concocting an oxytocin nasal spray currently awaiting FDA approval. This study would make great promotional literature!

Far be it from me to portray divorce as a desirable solution to marital discord, but I also recognize that sometimes it's necessary. The divorced may be, on average, less happy and healthy than singles or the happily married, but how do they stack up against the unhappily married? Do these researchers expect us to believe that the unhappily married really have it better off? If you're married to a chronic cheater, an abuser (physical or emotional), a criminal, an addict, or even someone who just makes you miserable every day, day after day...sometimes the initial pain of separation may be worth the years of peace and stability that follow. And some singles-again do--gasp--get a second chance at love!

Again, I don't mean to push divorce as an acceptable escape hatch from problems that are better addressed by working on your own faults and foibles, but it bothers me that the researchers refuse to acknowledge that sometimes it is a sad but unavoidable outcome. I wish I'd seen a quote that sounded more like this: "The results of this study shouldn't be seen as justification to walk out on your spouse, and we hope that your first line of defense against these symptoms will be to get counseling and tackle interpersonal problems that might be defeating your relationship. But sometimes, unfortunately, a relationship may be so emotionally unhealthy and unsalvageable that it is in your best interest, physically and psychologically, to end it." What's wrong with that (other than that it doesn't fit into the agenda of a matrimaniacal society)?

Most of all, I'm concerned about what this study says about gender relations and the casual attitude with which Henry dismissed the health dangers to women as part and parcel of the natural female preoccupation with relationships. There are two disturbing assumptions here. The first is that women should derive so much of their psychological wellbeing from marriage, and the second is that men should not. Though the researchers gave lip service to reducing relational conflict, I get the sense that they are tolerant of normative expectations that a woman should invest more in a relationship than a man. I ask you, dear readers, to consider whether that very attitude may even be causing some of the marital problems that these couples face. I also find it interesting that there were no differences between husbands and wives on measures of depression. In opposition to Henry's conclusion, this implies to me that both sexes are equally stressed by interpersonal conflict and that women's bodies simply have a harder time recuperating from it. This would be a physiobiological difference, not a difference in relationship investment.

In general, though, I'm encouraged by this study. It honestly describes the health consequences of strained marital relations and doesn't try to obfuscate the data to further a conservative ideology that marriage cures all ills. That's a step in the right direction. Now if only these researchers can turn their baby step into a giant leap...

What do you think about this study? Why do you think women in troubled marriages had a higher incidence of metabolic syndrome than their male partners did? What do you think about the researchers' conclusions regarding why unhappily married women are at greater health risk than their husbands? Do you agree with the researchers about what should be done to minimize that risk? Do you believe that a bad marriage is better or worse than a divorce?


1. University of Utah
4. BBC News

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Anonymous said...

Very interesting point that perhaps womens' bodies physiologically may have a harder time recovering from the metabolic stressors of emotional drama. I can definitely buy this.

I think if we're going to regard marriage as a panacaea, we should also regard divorce as a panacaea too. Why isn't the federal government sponsoring a media campaign to promote divorce to make us healthier and happier and improve society? Because, as you say, we're encouraged to work at addressing our foibles within the relationship before taking such drastic action as a divorce. Wouldn't it be funny if we encouraged people to address their foibles before getting married? Oh wait, that wouldn't be funny, that would be sensible. Anyway, I'm veering off-topic here but that's what your post made me think.

Also, I didn't think of this until you pointed it out, but it makes me mad that "the researchers. . . are tolerant of normative expectations that a woman should invest more in a relationship than a man." They're almost letting men off the hook, in the same way that people let men off the hook when they say, "Oh, men look at women not their partner, or objectify women based on their physical appearance, because men are such visual creatures and are evolutionarily programmed to do so."


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. Since women are more emotional and believe more in romance and ‘happily ever after’, it's not surprising they're more affected than men in a bad marriage. I've seen many of my women friends' and family members' health being affected after a stressful marriage, way more than their husbands. But as devastating a divorce can be, I still think it's a better alternative to staying in a bad and unhappy marriage. Sometimes you just can’t fix it and it’s better to let go and start anew. I hope more women would read this and really think twice before getting married. It is worth it sometimes, but they should really know what they’re getting into.

Clever Elsie said...

Christina: Wouldn't it be awesome to see billboards of young, unsmiling couples with the caption "Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure" or "Got Therapy?" One can only dream, but there's no denying it would be in the best interest of the state for married couples to stay married, so one would think they'd want to encourage better marital choices. Of course, the demise of the divorce industry wouldn't be so great for lawyers, and an awful lot of politicians moonlight as attorneys at law.

And, yeah, those double standards bother me, too. Women could say that we're evolutionarily programmed to be gold diggers, but that doesn't fly with men, yet we're supposed to be fine and dandy with their wandering eyes and younger women. I'm of the school that believes we have more highly developed cognitive functioning for a reason--because we are not just slaves to instinct.

Monique: I'm sad to hear that the women in your life were mostly the ones who had to bear the brunt of the emotional fallout when their marriages fell apart. Unfortunately, it does support the findings of the study.

I think your perspective on divorce sounds healthy, and I also hope more people will think carefully before rushing into marriage. Since there are more singles today than ever before, I think people are starting to take that message to heart.