It’s not surprising that people who are happily married report feeling generally better, both physically and psychologically, than people who are less satisfied in their marriages. But what about specific symptoms of specific diseases—does marital happiness make a difference there, as well? New research is showing that it does—and in a big way.

So if you or your spouse has a chronic condition, and you don’t want that condition to get worse or even to get out of control, this is something you need to understand.

THE MARRIAGE-DISEASE CONNECTION

The effect of the marital relationship on health is an emerging area of study. For example, for people with low-back problems, marital fights were recently found to make their pain worse. Now a new study finds that marital tensions are strongly linked to worsening symptoms for people with arthritis or diabetes—a situation that can make these serious diseases progress more quickly.

To drill down on this health question, researchers at Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Healthy Aging and Kent State and Purdue Universities studied 145 couples age 50 or older in which one spouse had osteoarthritis and another 129 couples age 55 or older in which one spouse had diabetes. The scientists focused on these two chronic conditions because they are among the most common serious adult conditions in the US.

All participants kept daily diaries for several weeks, noting their moods and whether the interactions with their partners were positive or negative. The spouses with the chronic conditions also kept track of the severity of their symptoms—pain for arthritis, for example, or increased thirst for diabetes.

Findings: In both groups, episodes of marital tension were immediately followed by a worsening of symptoms.

For the people with diabetes, the worsening of symptoms occurred on the same day of the marital tension. But those with arthritis not only experienced more symptoms such as pain on that day—they also had more conflicts with their spouses on the next day.

That can turn into a vicious cycle—a fight with your spouse may lead to worse symptoms, which in turn leads to more tension, which ratchets up the symptoms even further…and so develops an endless cycle of increasing symptoms and discord. That can have long-term consequences, the researchers warn. Over time, individuals with severe arthritis pain are more likely to become disabled, and those with uncontrolled diabetes are at risk of developing serious health complications including nerve pain and even blindness.

Prescription: Improve Your Marriage

If you or your partner has a chronic health problem, the following three insights, culled from the research, may help improve your daily married life…

  • Keep in mind the vicious cycle described above—tension worsens symptoms, which then lead to more tensions—to give yourself a chance to notice and break the cycle.
  • In terms of the effects on symptoms, what matters most is how the spouse with the chronic condition feels things are going in the relationship. If you are the healthy spouse (or let’s say, the healthier one), don’t try to impose your views as a way to make things better—it won’t work.
  • Try to resist pressuring your spouse to better manage his or her illness. At least, don’t become a nag about it. Research has found that such attempts often backfire and may even lead to a worsening of symptoms.

If you find yourself fighting frequently—whether or not one of you has a chronic condition—take a moment to read these tips on how to fight fair. And while it may sound trivial, sometimes it’s the small things, like kissing more often, that make a difference in how well you get along.