Poor marriage, poor health: Fighting with your spouse may lead to disease

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Fighting with your partner can do a lot more than boil your blood. A new study finds that marital spats can actually cause bacteria to seep into the bloodstream, leading to potential inflammation and even disease.

Researchers from The Ohio State University believe the study is the first of its kind to draw this particular link between bad marriages and bad health. They show that lovers’ quarrels could actually create a condition charmingly referred to as “leaky guts.” When that occurs, the intestinal lining becomes more porous and allows for partially-digested food and bacteria from the gut to enter the blood, driving up disease-causing inflammation throughout the body.

“Marital stress is a particularly potent stress, because your partner is typically your primary support and in a troubled marriage your partner becomes your major source of stress,” says lead author Janice Kiecolt-Glaser in a university release.

Kiecolt-Glaser and her team recruited 43 healthy married couples and surveyed them about their relationships. They asked the participants to then discuss and try to resolve an issue likely to cause a strong disagreement. Most of the couples went into battle, unsurprisingly, over in-laws and/or money.

The team left the couples alone to hash out their differences and videotaped them for 20 minutes. Researchers noted their verbal and non-verbal fighting behaviors, focusing especially on exhibitions of hostility, such as nonverbal gestures or insults of their partner.

The researchers then compared blood samples drawn before the fight and after the fight. Men and women who showed more hostile behaviors during their observed disagreements had higher levels of a biomarker for the so-called “leaky guts” than their peers who showed fewer signs of hostility. The biomarker, known as LPS-binding protein (LBP), signals bacteria in blood, and is linked to inflammation. Of course, many conditions, including heart disease and diabetes, may be brought on by inflammation.

“We think that this everyday marital distress – at least for some people – is causing changes in the gut that lead to inflammation and, potentially, illness,” explains Kiecolt-Glaser.  “Hostility is a hallmark of bad marriages – the kind that lead to adverse physiological changes.”

The findings were particularly prevalent in individuals who had a history of depression.

“Depression and a poor marriage – that really made things worse,” says Kiecolt-Glaser. “This may reflect persistent psychological and physiological vulnerabilities among people who have suffered from depression and other mood disorders.”

The average age of participants in the study was 38, leading the authors to believe the findings could be more troublesome in older spouses.

The study appears in the December 2018 edition of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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