Today’s episode is on the lighter side. But did you know that researchers have actually done studies on the phenomenon of the man cold or man flu? You may be wondering if it’s really worse for a man to have a cold than for a woman? Well: like we say every time, we have the research, the truth and the answers you’re looking for!
That’s right, today we’re going to be talking about the very serious and culturally under-acknowledged and deeply stigmatized issue of man colds.
Do Men Suffer More Than Woman?
Funny enough, there have been a few research journal articles published on the man cold or man flu phenomenon. There was a joke article published in the British Medical Journal where a researcher tried to establish whether men were immunologically inferior or if they were just wimps. Fast forwarding to the conclusion, the researcher from the University of Alberta suggested that “Perhaps now is the time for male friendly spaces, equipped with enormous televisions and reclining chairs, to be set up where men can recover from the debilitating effects of man flu in safety and comfort”[i].
Another Research Group Responds
Not content to let the issue lie, another group of researchers (who perhaps had too much time on their hands)[ii] wrote in to the British Medical Journal with their own investigation. “Being men ourselves, and having had several near death experiences enduring the flu, we were intrigued by the same question as Dr. Sue.”
In their study 15 men and 15 women were injected with a flu virus and their responses were measured. They found that women have a stronger immune response to the virus than men, meaning that women naturally recover from colds and flu more quickly while men suffer from them more severely. “We indeed found that the male subjects did not erect shelves, maintain cars or attend a football match (or engaged in reproductive activities for that matter) directly following [our] study, illustrating how inflammation may affect social life.[iii]“.
So some (not all) research shows that men may experience cold and flu symptoms more severely. But they may also communicate their illness in different ways. A study from 2018[iv] found that men and women “moaned and complained equally” when ill with cold symptoms but that men had a tendency to sigh and take long deep breaths more often. This perhaps suggests a tendency to exaggerate symptom severity.
Overall research suggests that men may experience cold and flu more severely due to women having a stronger immune response. I think this warrants some sympathy!
How To Help Your Ill Spouse
It is interesting to follow this gender issue further. We’ll give you some practical info to help be that caring wife that you always wanted to be!
Get Him To The Doctor!
Men are much less likely to seek medical help regarding illnesses than women[v], or may seek help but do so much later once symptoms have gotten worse. This is thought to be due to “traditionally masculine beliefs” about wanting to cope with illness on your own and being reluctant to seek help. So if your husband is complaining about illness but refusing to do anything about it, get him to a doctor!
Be Sympathetic, But Not Too Sympathetic
This one is interesting. Research from 2018[vi] found that your expectations of how severe an illness will be can actually impact how severe it is. Expecting an illness to be very severe can lead to negative mood and anxiety, and these can increase the severity of the symptoms you feel. So when comforting your spouse you want to be sympathetic and supportive, but making too big a deal of the illness can make it worse.
A Health Check for your Marriage
Once again we’ve created a bonus guide for our much-appreciated supporters who are sensitive to the immunological vulnerabilities of men and understand they truly need a little extra care. Turns out that your physical health is linked to your marital health so we want to help you with a marriage checkup this week. This checkup will get you guys reviewing a number of things together: how supported you feel, where your stress and conflict levels are at, how much fun and laughter you are having, how well you’re expressing yourselves and if you are in touch with each other’s wellbeing. Who doesn’t need a good marriage checkup once in a while? You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Your Communication Style Impacts Your Marriage More Than Your Cold
Now let’s look in a bit more depth about how illness can affect your marriage. Communication forms the link between illness and marital quality. How you speak to each other when one of you is ill has more of an effect on marriage than the actual illness itself. Research from 2004[vii] studied this and identified five main styles of communication about illness, three of which were positive and two negative.
Depending which style of communication you use as a couple, different things will affect your marital satisfaction while you are ill. This is well worth considering.
Positive Communication Styles
Sympathetic style. This is where both spouses want to be pampered and looked after when ill, and are willing to do so for each other. You both like being made a fuss of, and are happy to do this for your spouse when the need arises. If this sounds like you and your spouse, here’s how you can support each other:
- Attention: spouses felt better when they were looked after and “made a fuss of”
- Empathy and validation: spouses felt better when their spouse made the effort to understand how they felt
Independent Style. This is where both spouses want to be left alone when ill, and are happy to do so for one another. Very much the “hands off” approach. If this is you, here’s how you should talk to each other:
- Autonomy: understand that leaving your spouse alone will help them feel better
- Self-sufficiency: let them manage their own illness in terms of medication and care rather than doing it for them
Mixed style. This is where one spouse wants to be pampered and looked after when ill, while the other prefers to be left alone. You don’t have to react the same way when ill, so long as you both understand how your spouse wants to be treated. Ways to support your spouse in this style (in addition to the above):
- Understand their different needs: respect the fact that they want to be treated differently to how you would want to be treated, and make the effort to meet those needs. For example making a fuss of your spouse when they are ill, even if you would rather be left alone if it were you.
Negative Communication Styles
Mismatched style. This happens when couples do not understand how to meet each other’s needs when ill, or when one spouse gets their needs met but not the other. For example a husband assuming his wife wants to be left alone when sick, because that is what he prefers. Easy enough to do … but unhelpful.
Couples in this situation need to work on clarity: being able to clearly express what you want from your spouse while you are ill, and then try to meet your spouse’s needs when they are ill. Also the person showing care can study and observe what works well for their spouse more than just thinking of what they themselves would appreciate.
Rejecting style. This is when spouses may understand what their spouse wants but choose to reject it. For example a husband wants to be made a fuss of but his wife ignores him.
This is often a cycle where one spouse feels their needs are not met and so thinks “if you aren’t going to look after me then why should I look after you?” Obviously this is a negative communication style and leads to poor marital quality. Couples can avoid this by breaking the “like for like” cycle: start meeting your spouse’s needs even if they don’t meet yours. This will make them more likely to want to look after you next time you are ill.
So understanding how your spouse wants to be treated while ill, and making the effort to act accordingly is the a great way to improve marital quality during illness. Give it a shot, let us know how it goes!
And I just want to say to all my bro-dudes out there who are down with a cold right now. I feel your pain, man, I really do. Hope your wife is showing you some love. You take care of yourself ok?
[i] Kyle Sue, “The Science behind ‘Man Flu,’” BMJ 359 (December 11, 2017): j5560, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.j5560.
[ii] Lucas T. van Eijk et al., “Gender Differences in the Innate Immune Response and Vascular Reactivity Following the Administration of Endotoxin to Human Volunteers,” Critical Care Medicine 35, no. 6 (June 2007): 1464–69, https://doi.org/10.1097/01.CCM.0000266534.14262.E8.
[iii] van Eijk et al.
[iv] Julie Lasselin et al., “Sickness Behavior Is Not All about the Immune Response: Possible Roles of Expectations and Prediction Errors in the Worry of Being Sick,” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 74 (November 2018): 213–21, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2018.09.008.
[v] Paul M. Galdas, Francine Cheater, and Paul Marshall, “Men and Health Help-Seeking Behaviour: Literature Review,” Journal of Advanced Nursing 49, no. 6 (2005): 616–23, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2004.03331.x.
[vi] Lasselin et al., “Sickness Behavior Is Not All about the Immune Response.”
[vii] Kandi L. Walker and Fran C. Dickson, “An Exploration of Illness-Related Narratives in Marriage: The Identification of Illness-Identity Scripts,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 21, no. 4 (August 1, 2004): 527–44, https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407504044846.