Unhealthy Union: Sick of Each Other
August 17, 2004
Gregory Mott, Washington Post

A bad marriage can make you sick. So suggest findings presented this month at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting.

Jamila Bookwala, a professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, reported that "negative spousal behaviors" such as excessive demands or criticism seem to enhance the likelihood of developing chronic health problems, disability and perception of poor health. Bookwala, who drew on data from a national survey of people at least 50 years old and in their first marriage, said her study is one of the first to examine the impact of marriage quality in older couples.

"Being married seems to have a positive effect on health and well-being," she said by way of acknowledging the vast body of evidence making that case. "But if you're married and you're in a lousy marriage, that can be hurtful."

Staying the Course Bookwala said her findings, to be published in the Journal of Aging and Health, suggest that the benefits of good relationships are not as great as the damage done by poor ones. And she noted that other research suggests that being in a poor marriage may even be more deleterious than being alone.

But she doesn't recommend that older folks in troubled marriages necessarily go solo.

"What I suggest is that there can be couple-oriented workshops, where individuals can be taught to maybe be more honest about the negative aspects of their marriages," she said. "Perhaps if we can limit some of the negative interactions, we may see some health benefits accrue."

A Nagging Question Limitations in the data leave open the question of whether Bookwala is misreading cause and effect: that is, whether poor health might worsen marriages, instead of the other way around. "It's the proverbial chicken-and-egg question," she said.