Marital Discord is Bad for Heart

Marital Discord is Bad for Heart

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Albert Einstein once said that marriage is the "unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an accident. " I am not a historian, so I don't know how long his own marriage lasted, but as a mind-body psychologist I know that a bad marriage can have a lasting effect on a couple's health.

This article focuses on the possible effects of a bad marriage on the health of the heart.

Which of the following would you say contributes to development of heart disease: high blood pressure; high cholesterol; overweight, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, type "A" personality, anger, depression, high stress level or marital discord? All such physical and psychosocial factors present significant risk for heart disease.

Among the psychosocial factors, lack of social support, emotional attachment and connectedness with significant others present a significant risk for heart disease. However, I will confine my comments on the relationship between heart troubles and troubled marriages.

The level of intimacy, love, communication and emotional support can play a significant role in both the development of and recovery from heart disease.

We all know that a bad marriage causes bad stress and bad stress is bad for health. But, that's not all. In the absence of love and support, partners commit acts that can harm them and neglect the ones that can save their lives.

Take for example such acts as going to your doctor promptly and early, following through on the required tests and adhering to treatment. If two marriage partners aren't talking to each other and are fighting all the time, chances are that the partner with potential heart disease would ignore warning symptoms, postpone a visit to the doctor and, if treatment is prescribed, will not fully comply with the doctor's instructions. The other partner, if depressed, angry or sulking, is unlikely to encourage the sick partner to seek treatment.

We live in a world where heart disease is seen primarily as a medical affair. We believe if we can only have the most sophisticated tests, most potent medicine and the latest technology in surgical procedures, we can handle any kind of heart disease.

Suppose the mythical fountain of eternal youth and vitality exists somewhere in Shangrila, and is always turned on like "Old Faithful". But, if you refused to go there, it wouldn't do you any good. Heart patients enmeshed in marital discord don't even bother to look for their Shangrila.

The role of a partner in encouraging the sick one to obtain diagnosis and pursue treatment is critical. Most individuals who die from myocardial infarction do so because of failure to seek treatment.

Diagnosis without treatment is not of much help. Say, you have been diagnosed with the coronary heart disease and given a treatment plan. Now, what? Adherence to treatment is vitally important, literally speaking ("vita" is life). Patients with high spousal support show greater adherence to treatment than the ones with low spousal support.

In a loving and mutually supportive marriage, both partners are likely to act more responsibly in caring for their own health and encouraging the other partner to choose healthy behaviors. This is likely to have a positive effect on such health behaviors as quitting smoking, sticking to the recommended diet, initiating and maintaining an exercise program and treatment compliance and adherence.

Let's not forget the stress factor. High spousal emotional support works as a buffer between patient and the stressful circumstances and events.

Couples who are "at war" with each other are likely to have more episodes of increased heart rate and blood pressure compared to those who have fewer arguments and better skills to resolve them constructively. Many patients report that their myocardial infarction episode occurred right after a big argument with their spouse. It makes better sense for couples to learn communication- and conflict-resolution skills as a part of a cardiac rehabilitation program.

Overanxious and overprotective spouses can also negatively affect the recovery of a heart patient. For example, an overanxious spouse may cause the sick partner to feel anxious and guilty. An overprotective spouse may discourage the sick partner to exercise and resume activities suited to perceived limitations of the newly developed health problem.

During the recovery process, counseling and education are vital, at least in the case of a troubled marriage.

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Copyright 2003, Mind Publications 
Posted May 2003


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