As anyone in a relationship knows, a spouse’s stress can be contagious. A new study finds that it even appears to have health consequences over time.
When wives reported greater stress, their husbands often had higher blood pressure, according to new research led by Kira Birditt, a research associate professor at the University of Michigan. And a bad marriage makes it even more likely that those two things will be linked, the study found.
“Unhappily married people are probably worse off than people who get a divorce,” said Sara Moorman, an associate professor of sociology at Boston College, who was not involved in the new research.
By contrast, a happier marriage provides about the same health boost as eating a healthy diet of fruit and vegetables, Moorman said.
In the new study of 1,300 middle-aged couples, the bad marriage effect only occurred when both husband and wife thought the relationship was on the rocks; if one was happy, the stress didn’t get transferred, said Birditt, whose research was published in the Journals of Gerontology.
“Maybe when one feels negative about the relationship, it could be buffered by the other member not feeling negative,” Birditt said. “It’s important for you both not to be negative at the same time.”
The study suggested a gender effect, with more husbands seeing an increase in blood pressure because of their wife’s stress than the other way around. Stereotypically, women have more support outside of a marriage, perhaps allowing them to blow off steam. Men often rely on their wives for such emotional comfort and may struggle more when her stress prevents her from being supportive, Birditt said.
Constructive coping strategies, like not yelling, talking through problems, and avoiding blame, can help, she said.
It may also be useful for the partner who is less stressed to cut the other one a little slack, said Lisa Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who was not involved in the study.
Coping with the relatively minor stresses of daily life can prepare couples to better handle more trying challenges, like a family illness or financial crisis, she said.
In her own life, Neff said she tries — not always successfully — to remember that her stress is likely to transfer to her husband.
“As a relationship researcher I’m aware that sometimes I’m not doing the right thing, but it doesn’t always help me in the actual moment,” she said. “We’re all human.”