A happy marriage can help mend physical wounds

VANCOUVER, B.C. — A happy marriage apparently is good medicine, but hostile spouses may be harmful to one another’s health.

Couples in conflict-ridden marriages take longer than the happily married to heal from all kinds of wounds, from minor scrapes or athletic injuries to major surgery, suggests a study out over the weekend.

And the health toll taken by a stressful job seems to be eased when the worker has a pleasurable home life.

This new research, reported at the American Psychosomatic Society meeting here, adds to growing evidence that marriage has an impact on health.

In the wound healing study, 42 couples agreed to let researchers use a suction device to create several minor blister wounds on their skin in two sessions about two months apart. The first time, couples were told to discuss a neutral topic; the next time they were given half an hour to resolve an issue or two on which they disagreed. Their discussions were monitored.

Researchers also checked participants’ wounds over the next few weeks and their production of three proteins created in wound healing.

The outcome: “Even a simple discussion of a disagreement slows wound healing,” says psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, who did the study with co-author Ronald Glaser of Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Overall, couples took longer to heal when asked to thrash out points of conflict than neutral issues. Hostile couples — peppering both discussions with criticism, sarcasm and put-downs — healed the slowest. It took them 40% longer, or two more days, to heal, and they also produced less of the proteins linked to healing.

These are minor wounds and brief, restrained encounters. Real-life marital conflict probably has a worse impact, Kiecolt-Glaser adds. “Such stress before surgery matters greatly,” she says, and the effect could apply to healing from any injury

In earlier studies done by Kiecolt-Glaser, hostile couples were most likely to show signs of poorer immune function after their discussions in the lab. Over the next few months, they also developed more respiratory infections than supportive spouses.

On the upside, good marriages may buffer couples against the stress of demanding jobs in which the worker has little control. In a study with 201 married adults, those in high-strain jobs had higher blood pressure at the start, says University of Toronto psychiatrist Brian Baker.

A year later, though, spouses in pleasurable marriages actually improved a couple of points in diastolic (bottom) blood pressure readings, despite their rough jobs. Meanwhile, those who seldom enjoyed talking or activities with their spouses had about a 3-point rise in blood pressure after coping with stressful jobs for a year.

“You may not be able to get away from the job stress,” says Baker, “but a good marriage soothes people, minimizing bad effects from the job.”

This doesn’t surprise Karen Kayser, a Boston College social-work professor and author of When Love Dies, a book about couples falling out of love.

“People tend not to recognize how much their marriage can affect the rest of their life,” she says. Kayser has studied how couples cope with the stress of a wife’s diagnosis of breast cancer. “How the marriage helps or hurts tends to come out more during a crisis,” she says, “but our marriages are affecting our health and well-being all the time.”

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Dr. Gnap

Dr. Gnap is a family practice physician and behavioral medicine specialist in suburban Chicago.  Dr. Gnap developed the Inner Control™ Program in 1970 and has worked with thousands of people to improve and correct medical, emotional, behavioral and learning problems including performance.  He started the Inner Control program because so many patients asked, “what more can be done along with traditional treatment methods?”

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