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5 Ways a Bad Marriage May Harm Health After 40

No partnership is perfect. If your bond with your significant other is strained, you could be at increased risk for heart, skin, sleep, weight or other problems.

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illustration of couple back to back reflecting on marriage
Michelle Pereira
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As you may have already heard, tying the knot has many health advantages. Studies have shown that marriage is associated with lower blood pressure, lower stress and less depression, and it may decrease a person’s risk of developing heart disease or dying of cancer.

 Married folks even tend to live longer, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s National Longitudinal Mortality Study.

 A caveat: Those benefits come from a good, healthy marriage. An unhappy, stressful one can do the opposite. And according to The Journal of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, starting at age 40, women tend to experience more marital strain than men. That means if you’re one of the many women in a not-so-happy union, it could affect your well-being in ways you didn’t realize.

 First, what’s a “bad” marriage?

What’s considered a bad marriage depends on the people involved. One couple’s “bad” marriage might be what another considers spice or excitement. If despite whatever is going on, both people in the relationship believe their problems are solvable and their marriage is worth holding on to, that’s more of a rough patch, says Cornelia Gibson, Ed.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist at Agape Counseling Center and Network in Fairfield, California.

So an example of a rough patch might be the issues that led to Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Lemonade and 4:44 albums. They had some issues but were willing and able to work through them.

Dr. Gibson says potential signs of an unhealthy relationship include constant criticism, disrespect or disrespectful behavior; one or both partners is emotionally or physically disconnected; and abuse of any kind. In addition, “When either party in the marriage believes that their problems or concerns are irreparable, that would be a sign of a bad marriage,” she says.

We don’t want to point anyone out, but you can probably think of several celebrity couples that fit the bad marriage description, with constant turmoil, countless breakups to makeups, allegations (or proof) of infidelity, mugshots, outside kids, the whole nine yards.

How a bad marriage harms your health

· Your heart takes a beating. Talk about a broken heart. A study published in the journal Health Psychology looked at women ages 42 through 50 and found those in unsatisfying marriages had more risk factors for heart disease, such as higher cholesterol, higher BMI and less exercise, than women who were happily wed. And a study in The Journal of Gerontology reported that spouses have increased blood pressure when they both have negative feelings about their relationship.

· It stresses you out. Relationship problems usually cause intense emotions like sadness, confusion, loneliness, hurt, resentment or worry. The Health Psychology study reported that women in less-than-happy marriages also had higher levels of anger, depression and anxiety. And as we all know, mental health plays a big part in our overall health.

· Your appearance may suffer. Chronic stress, like that from a poor marriage, can lead to issues including problems with your skin and packing on pounds (or losing too many). We all know a woman who looks way better after getting out of a bad relationship, right? Right.

· Your immune system may take a hit. Chronic stress can increase inflammation and decrease the number of infection-fighting cells in your body, making you more likely to get sick. Even if you’re not officially ill, you may feel bad. Think headaches, aches and pain, neck stiffness, tiredness or an upset stomach, diarrhea or constipation.

· It can throw off your sleep. Staying up all night stressing, crying or, worse, arguing with your partner? Or sleeping way more than you should? Getting too little or too much sleep is associated with several health problems like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Reducing the risks of an unhappy marriage

We know that even after recognizing your marriage could cause health issues, divorce isn’t always the easiest (or best) option. Try these tips to minimize the possible health effects — whether you choose to work on your marriage, tough it out until the time is right or decide the relationship is too broken to be saved.

Don’t turn to unhealthy habits. “Unfortunately, when trying to handle the emotions associated with an unhealthy relationship, some women might turn to unhelpful coping strategies that might include overeating, undereating, drinking alcohol or using and/or abusing other drugs,” says Dr. Gibson. However, those unhealthy behaviors can increase the risk of the abovementioned problems. Plus, they could make the relationship (or your life) worse. Think about it: Putting high emotions together with mind-altering substances can bring about actions you may regret, maybe even a Waiting to Exhale moment, says Dr. Gibson.

Get out your feelings. Don’t bottle up your emotions and let stress overwhelm you. Journaling, talking to a trusted person such as a best friend or clergyperson, or joining a support group are good ways to express your thoughts and feelings, says Dr. Gibson.

Communicate with your partner. Just make sure it’s healthy communication. No yelling, verbal abuse or tuning out in the middle of a conversation. Dr. Gibson advises using more “I” statements to express how you feel and fewer “you” statements, which can come across as blaming. “Effective communication also consists of being open to listening as well as giving and receiving honest feedback,” she says.

See a therapist. If you believe your relationship is worth salvaging, Dr. Gibson recommends individual and couples therapy. Even if your partner isn’t willing to attend couples therapy, consider getting individual therapy for yourself. “In addition to helping reduce the mental health symptoms [of an unhappy marriage], individual counseling could also help boost your self-esteem and self-confidence, which are important in or out of a relationship,” says Dr. Gibson.

Take care of yourself. While figuring out your situation, tend to your needs. Eat healthy, be physically active, get adequate amounts of sleep (not too much though), stay socially connected and relax your mind. All of those things are beneficial regardless of the status of your marriage.

Get help. If there’s abuse in your marriage — whether physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or otherwise — visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website. You can also call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), text “START” to 88788 or live chat for support and resources.

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