Study Finds Tension in Marriage Can Lead to Worse Chronic Illness Symptoms


If you have a chronic illness and are in a relationship, have you ever felt physically worse after having a conflict with your significant other? If you have, it’s not just you — a new study has found that tension with a spouse can lead to worse symptoms and pain and vice versa.

The study, conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine in March, focused on one group of 145 people with osteoarthritis and another group of 129 people with type 2 diabetes. Participants kept daily diaries for 22 and 24 days, respectively, about their mood, the severity of their symptoms and whether their interactions with their spouse were positive or negative.

In both groups, patients were in a worse mood on days when they felt more tension with their spouse, which then led to worse pain and more severe symptoms.

In the osteoarthritis group only, researchers also found the reverse: that when participants were in greater pain, they were in a worse mood and experienced more tension with their partner the next day. Lynn Martire, one of the study’s researchers, hypothesized that this wasn’t found in the diabetes group due to differences in the two diseases.

The idea that disability and illness are associated with marriage difficulties is not a new one, particularly when the wife is ill and the husband is not. A 2014 study found that the risk of divorce among older couples rises when the wife becomes seriously ill. However, it’s not all bad news: a 2009 study, conducted over 12 years, found that onset of a physical disability actually led to greater marital happiness among participants.

Cathryn Glenday, a licensed mental health counselor who also has a below the knee amputation and lupus, told The Mighty that while all relationships have some degree of conflict, when one partner is ill or has a disability, some issues are more challenging. When one partner is physically limited in some way, both control and dependency can become exaggerated. When a person feels that part of their body is not under their control, things they can control become more critical and Glenday said their partner needs to be sensitive to this.

For example, drinking all the orange juice and not replacing it may not be a major issue unless a diabetic needs juice on hand to treat hypoglycemia. Likewise, if a person with arthritis needs adaptive equipment, having it in a certain place may not be a big deal to the healthy person but even moving a walker a quarter of an inch can place it out of safe reach and trigger a fight. Also, when one person is ill or disabled the other person may assume more responsibility and begin to resent the dependency. Or the healthy person may foster dependency to keep an ill partner in the relationship.

Money and sex may also cause problems, as limited earning capacity can increase stress, while body image issues and medication can lead to a lower sex drive and in turn cause conflict if your partner doesn’t understand and thinks they are no longer desirable.

Glenday said having open communication is the way through these challenges. In addition, couples may find that counseling with a disability or “health aware” therapist can be a big help.

“Use of ‘I statements’ can also help decrease conflict. If my partner moves my walker out of reach, I would say, ‘When you move my walker, I feel helpless.’ This form of communication is considered assertive not aggressive and helps change behaviors by linking them to feelings,” she said.

While illness can lead to marriage challenges, it’s certainly possible to have a happy marriage when one or both partner has an illness or disability. For more about managing relationships and chronic illness, check out our community’s advice for dating someone with a chronic illness or Mighty contributor Julie Ryan’s top two suggestions for reducing the impact of illness on a marriage.

Getty photo by KatarzynaBialasiewicz


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