How a Bad Relationship Can Ruin your Health

In recent times the health benefits of marriage have been widely discussed. But while strong partnerships can help us avoid illness, adopt healthier habits, and even live longer, it is increasingly becoming evident that troubled relationships can have the opposite effect of ruining the health of partners by breeding stress and weaken immunity.

What do numbers say?

A major survey of 127,545 American adults quoted in a Harvard journal1 found that married men are healthier than men who were never married or whose marriages ended in divorce or widowhood. In the same study, patients with supportive marriages were found to have better survival rates when cancer was diagnosed as compared to patients who are separated at the time of diagnosis. Here though notice should be taken of the qualifier ‘supportive’, since unhappy relationships may well have the opposite effect of worsening people’s health. In an experiment, mentioned in an article from The Times2, married women underwent brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI). During the scans, the women were told they were going to receive a painful electric shock. The researchers then watched to see how the subjects' brains responded to the threat and found that among happily married women, hypothalamus activity declined sharply if husbands held their wives' hands during the experiment. Women who reported being less satisfied with their marriage--and women whose hands were held by strangers--got little such relief. This suggests that only happily married women are better able to cope with stress and pain as opposed to those who are single or unhappy in their relationship.

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Though marriage appears to confer some health benefits to spouses, the main benefit comes from supportive relationship. In case of troubled marriages the stress and anxiety of marital unhappiness can actually be a factor in depression, ill-health and death as compared to people who may be divorced by stress-free and happy. In fact unhappiness and stress in marital life have been linked to an important cardiac risk factor, hypertension. Over time, in fact, marital stress is associated with thickening of the heart's main pumping chamber, even though comparative stress in professional life does not take a similar toll on the heart – all this only goes to prove that an unhappy marriage can be equally inimical to a man’s welfare as singlehood is purported to be.

Even a relatively newer study3 which pointed out that single people are likely to die sooner than their married counterparts admitted that singles who survive their younger years actually fare well over a lifespan. The relative risk of death for singles aged 30 to 39-years-old was 128 percent greater than among married people of the same age, but decreased to about 16 percent for single 70-year-olds when compared to 70-year olds in wedded bliss, according to the study.

How a bad relationship kills

When you are in a bad relationship, you are subject to a great deal of stress. Whether you and your partner are giving each other the silent treatment or flinging crockery at one another, an unhappy relationship leads to stress. This in turn triggers the body's "fight or flight" mechanism, signaling it to produce hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The immediate physiological results are slowing down of Digestion, speeding up of the heart rate, tensing up of the muscles so that they are ready for action. All this would be ideal if you truly needed to fight or flee for your life. However when you're under chronic stress, however, your body never really relaxes fully and this takes a heavy toll on all your body's systems.

Chronic stress has been linked to a variety of health problems, including chronic pain, headaches, stomachaches, sleep problems and depression. It can not only weaken your immune system, making you susceptible to illnesses but can worsen pre-existing conditions as well, like GERD and other stomach problems or psoriasis and acne. Chronic stress like that from a bad relationship can also make asthma and COPD symptoms worse. However the biggest negative impact of being perpetually high-strung and unhappy in a relationship may be on the heart. Chronic stress has been linked to high blood pressure, blood clots, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, heart attack and heart failure.

Other unhealthy consequences of a bad relationship may range from weight gain and eating disorders to anxiety disorders and depression and women seem to come off worse in this regard than men. In an unhappy marriage, the wife is three times more likely to be depressed than the husband4. Everyday experiences as well as traumatic ones may provoke stress, leading to depression in women, who are raised to care for others. More often than men, they tend to subordinate their own needs. Many have too much to do in too little time, with too little control over how it is done – all of which leads to apathy, loss of interest, sadness and when things become unbearable even suicidal attempts.

Then again relationship insecurity or conflict has also been associated with poorer sleep—and to make matters worse, sleep problems can exacerbate relationship problems, creating a vicious cycle. Likewise relationship conflict and a lack of intimacy can drive people to drink. Both men and women drink more in response to relationship problems—and excessive drinking, in turn, can add fuel to already existing relationship problems.

What you can do

If you have been suffering from chronic stress as the result of a bad relationship, the implication is that you have been unhappy with your partner a long time now. Thus it may be difficult for you and your partner to resolve issues quickly and make way for a supportive relationship overnight. What might give better results is to talk to a counselor or therapist today and take control of the situation. This will help you and your partner alter the bad relationship habits that have gotten you both into this cycle in the first place. In the process you will also learn to both assert yourself as well as compromise – in other words learn to fight fair. An important step is to adapt to your relationship instead of insisting it tailor itself to your needs only. No relationship is perfect – neither are you, nor is your partner. Pay attention to the good things, and be positive. Finally you need to accept that some things are out of your control. You cannot change your partner, only yourself. If your partner has hurt you, forgive them not only for their sake but for your health too. Holding a grudge will only keep the hurt and stress simmering. Let go of it so that you can start to heal, physically and emotionally.

In the end though if your partner is not willing or interested in working on the relationship with you, it is time to move on since nothing is worth your own physical and emotional well-being.


  1. Harvard Health Publications - Marriage and men's health
  2. Time Magazine - Marry Me
  3. NBC News - Single people may die younger, new study finds
  4. Harvard Health Publications - Women and depression