Life gets really busy and difficult to manage sometimes, and as we encounter some challenges we can lose sight of the forest for the trees. Maybe we have some unexplained health problems or even problems at work and we wonder what is going on? Obviously, there are many potential reasons, but have you considered that your unhappy marriage could be an underlying issue?
Today’s topic looks at problems caused by marriage problems. Obviously, the goal here is not to make you want to give up on your marriage, but rather, instead of thinking about solving your other problems so that your marriage will be better…what if you START with your marriage? Get into some good books or some marriage counselling with your spouse and get that sorted, and then see the cascading benefits of a happy marriage spill over into other areas.
So hear us out as we go through various facets of life and see what resonates. This is meant to be an eye opener, so just be curious and consider how helping your marriage could be a huge benefit to other areas in your life.
The first hidden cost of marriage problems for us to discuss is the area of mental health.
Mental Health Is Impacted by Marital Woes
Not surprisingly, research shows a strong link between marital problems and poor mental health.
For example, a major study in 2007[i] examined over 2000 married individuals and found that marital distress was a predictor of high levels of anxiety, mood disruption, and substance abuse. It was also linked to specific mental health conditions including bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse disorder, depression and general anxiety disorder. For depression, it was found that the longer the marital problems go on, the higher the risk becomes.
Again, we want to assert that the solution is not to get un-married! But rather to pursue the healing of your marriage!
How do marital woes potentially contribute to mental health problems? Another study in 2005[ii] examined how marital distress can create mental health problems and found several mediating factors:
- Attribution style (see below — basically, you’re more likely to pay attention to negative things)
- Conflict style: especially demand-withdraw cycles and avoidance of conflict. These are normal patterns for distressed marriages.
- Attachment style: ambivalent or avoidant attachment. Not pursuing healing for attachment issues can impact mental health.
The flip side of this is you can see that marriage becomes something of a crucible for personal growth. Getting these conflict, attribution and attachment issues dealt with can turn your mental health challenges around. Again, another reason to stay in your marriage and sort this stuff out. Really, if you just go for escape you’re going to carry the same issues to the next marriage.
Physical Health Costs from Marriage Problems
The impact of marriage problems extends into the physical realm as well.
Research from 1997[iii] found that high levels of conflict and marital distress lead to various physical health problems, such as higher blood pressure and a weaker immune system. This effect was stronger for women than for men. One explanation for the gender effect is that women typically feel and express more negative emotions during conflict while men withdraw emotionally (known as the demand-withdraw cycle). It is this negative emotion and stress which causes the negative health effects[iv]. Of course, emotionally withdrawing isn’t going to be good for your marriage or your mental health, so we’re not saying that’s the better strategy here!
Other research highlights other health concerns for couples with low relationship satisfaction, such as higher risk of cardiovascular disease and even the possibility of higher mortality[v]. Again this effect is stronger for women than men.
Marriage Difficulties Influence Work as Well
Conflict and distress in your marriage can spill over into other areas of your life, particularly work. Everyone has a limited amount of mental and physical “resources” to manage their different roles and stress in one area, therefore, affects your ability to function in another[vi]. This can lead to problems at work such as:
- Poor performance at work
- Higher absence due to sickness and stress
- Higher rates of burnout
- More conflict with work colleagues
Rehearsing Good Communication
As you might expect, so much of marriage struggles come back to developing good communication. If you can improve this one issue you may well find everything else falls into place as suddenly you’re working together on your issues, not against. This week’s bonus guide for our patrons helps you to go through an interactive process of changing how you communicate so that you can connect with one another more effectively. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Unfortunately this lack of resources and increased strain can spill over into parenting as well.
Marital Problems Impact Children, Too
Marital problems, especially high levels of conflict and hostility, have a negative impact on children. Children whose parents display high levels of conflict often show problems such as anxiety, high levels of aggression, poorer emotional regulation ability, and lower levels of wellbeing overall[vii].
You see, parental conflict, especially if left unresolved, can damage a child’s sense of emotional security. Because of the conflict, the child comes to feel unsafe with their parents or inside he or she will carry the fear that the family will split apart. This lack of security can affect children’s wellbeing into their adult lives[viii]. So your marital issues, if poorly handled, can have long-term consequences not just for you but for your children too
From Bad to Worse (Attributions)
Here’s the tricky part. Once things are going badly, it’s easier for them to keep going badly. The state of your marriage affects how you interpret the actions of your spouse. In a distressed marriage, you are more likely to pay attention to negative things your spouse says and does while ignoring or misinterpreting the good things[ix]. When your perceptions of your spouse are already bad, you are more likely to interpret positive actions as being false or manipulative, or dismiss them as one-offs. At the same time, you will interpret negative actions as being deliberate, intended to hurt you and a true reflection of who they are as a person[x].
And this cycle keeps on going. Marital distress leads to negative attributions and interpretations. Negative attributions lead to further marital distress[xi] So unless you consciously work to break out of this negative interaction style, things will only get worse.
The Cost of Divorce
Ultimately, severe marital problems can reduce the stability of the marriage and lead to divorce. While divorce is often pitched in popular media as a good way to escape the consequences of marital distress, it has its own very substantial range of negative consequences. Many researchers finding that divorced individuals are worse off than those who choose to stay in distressed marriages even[xii]. The consequences of divorce include:
- Lower well-being and happiness
- More symptoms of stress and mental illness: one study[xiii] found the risk of depression to be 188% higher in divorced individuals than married
- More health problems
- Higher rates of unhealthy alcohol consumption
- Greater risk of mortality
- Poorer self-esteem
- Higher levels of loneliness and social isolation
Divorce also has major economic consequences. Divorced individuals are generally less well off than married couples, experience greater economic hardship and have a lower standard of living[xiv]. I read once that the average divorcee experiences the loss of 77% of their net worth.
Divorced parents also experience more difficulties in raising their children. Children whose parents divorce are at risk from a range of bad outcomes including lower self-esteem, lower academic achievement, lower well-being overall and behavioral problems[xv].
Are the negative effects of divorce temporary? Not always. Some people experience a dip in their wellbeing that can last 2 to 3 years following the divorce, but for others, the negative consequences of divorce put them on a “negative trajectory from which they might never fully recover[xvi]“.
We come back to the reason why put the effort into our marriage podcast that we do. We want to bring you honest, if sometimes difficult, truth from credible sources to help you recover, restore and rebuild your marriage because we believe that for almost all couples, that is indeed the best way forward. We also have a top-shelf marriage therapist employed in our virtual counseling agency who can help you do this work if you haven’t been able to restore things on your own. Just reach out to us through our website and we’d be very happy to help.
[i] Mark A. Whisman, “Marital Distress and DSM-IV Psychiatric Disorders in a Population-Based National Survey,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 116, no. 3 (2007): 638–43, https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-843X.116.3.638.
[ii] Els L. D. Heene, Ann Buysse, and Paulette Van Oost, “Indirect Pathways Between Depressive Symptoms and Marital Distress: The Role of Conflict Communication, Attributions, and Attachment Style,” Family Process 44, no. 4 (n.d.): 413–40, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1545-5300.2005.00070.x.
[iii] Tracy J. Mayne et al., “The Differential Effects of Acute Marital Distress on Emotional, Physiological and Immune Functions in Maritally Distressed Men and Women,” Psychology & Health 12, no. 2 (March 1, 1997): 277–88, https://doi.org/10.1080/08870449708407405.
[iv] Mayne et al.
[v] Linda C. Gallo et al., “Marital Status and Quality in Middle-Aged Women: Associations with Levels and Trajectories of Cardiovascular Risk Factors,” Health Psychology: Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association 22, no. 5 (September 2003): 453–63, https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-6188.8.131.523.
[vi] Alicia A. Grandey and Russell Cropanzano, “The Conservation of Resources Model Applied to Work–Family Conflict and Strain,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 54, no. 2 (1999): 350–70.
[vii] Patrick T. Davies and E. Mark Cummings, “Marital Conflict and Child Adjustment: An Emotional Security Hypothesis.,” Psychological Bulletin 116, no. 3 (1994): 387.
[viii] Paul R. Amato, “The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 62, no. 4 (November 2000): 1269–87.
[ix] Frank D. Fincham and Steven R. H. Beach, “Conflict in Marriage: Implications for Working with Couples,” Annual Review of Psychology 50 (1999): 47–77.
[x] Thomas N. Bradbury and Frank D. Fincham, “Attributions in Marriage: Review and Critique,” Psychological Bulletin, 1990, 3–33.
[xi] F. D. Fincham, S. R. Beach, and T. N. Bradbury, “Marital Distress, Depression, and Attributions: Is the Marital Distress-Attribution Association an Artifact of Depression?,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 57, no. 6 (December 1989): 768–71.
[xii] Amato, “The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children.”