How Married Couples Influence Each Other’s Physical Health

Shared stressors, mood effects, fights, and lifestyle play a role.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

 bdcbeththebest/Pixabay
Source: bdcbeththebest/Pixabay

Married or cohabiting partners can influence each others’ stress levels, mood, and health behavior patterns to a significant degree. This means having an unhappy or unhealthy spouse or a hostile marriage can make you more unhealthy. On the other hand, your spouse can act as a positive influence, helping you to be more active, lose weight, or drink less, which in turn is likely to improve your physical health. A recent review article by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and colleagues at Ohio State University suggests that the effect of marital interactions, spousal mood, and lifestyle habits on your health may be mediated via the gut.

Recently, researchers have become more aware of the gut as a central hub in your body that communicates with your brain, immune system, and cardiovascular system (via the vagus nerve).  Research shows that depression, diet, sleep, stress, and hostile marital interactions can reduce the biodiversity of gut bacteria or make your gut barrier more permeable and more likely to leak inflammatory agents into the bloodstream (known as “leaky gut). Less diverse gut microbiota or a more leaky gut can increase your vulnerability to chronic inflammation, obesity, and chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease. Living with a spouse or partner can therefore affect your gut and overall health in many more ways than you probably realize.

Below, I discuss some of the main pathways through which marriage (or cohabiting) influences health.

Similarities between married couples’ gene expression, immunity, and gut microbiota

Recent studies show that couples share health profiles and indicators of disease risk in more ways than previously thought. 

One study showed that across many genes, husbands' and wives' gene expression patterns were more similar than those of random pairs of people. Gene expression is affected by both genetic and environmental factors and affects physical functioning.

Another study compared cellular immune profiles between cohabiting couples and unrelated people and showed that couples were more similar across more than 50 different immune parameters.

Another study examined stool samples and found that cohabiting couples share more similar gut microbiota (bacteria and viruses) than unrelated pairs.

Why might these factors be influenced by living together? It turns out that physical interaction, touching, kissing, and sex promote a sharing of microbiota. Gut microbiota are related to many risk factors for cardiovascular disease or diabetes, including glucose metabolism, body mass index, waist circumference, and high-density lipoproteins.

Partners’ shared stressors, emotions, and health habits

Another factor promoting similarity in married couples’ health risk is that they may share common stressors or be affected by each others’ mood and stress levels. Stress is contagious, regardless of whether you face a shared stressor (like financial stress or a sick kid) or whether your partner brings his work stress home. Conflict, stress, or hostility in the marriage can also affect your mood and increase cortisol levels. Partners also tend to be influenced by each others’ healthy or unhealthy behaviors and sleep patterns.

Studies show that having a depressed partner doubles your risk of becoming depressed. 

Unhappy couples tend to reciprocate negative moods and hostility more than happy couples

People whose partners report more chronic sleep problems have higher inflammation. If your partner is awake at night, this can interrupt your sleep.

Gut microbiota, leaky gut, and chronic inflammation

A healthy gut has a diversity of bacteria or viruses that are evenly distributed so no one species dominates. Studies show that people with low bacterial diversity are more prone to chronic inflammation than those with a richer, more diverse set of species. Some research suggests that depressed people’s guts are less diverse than those of non-depressed people. Dietary habits can also affect the diversity of the microbiota. The traditional Western diet that is high in red meat, refined sugars, and saturated fats is associated with lower microbial diversity than Mediterranean diets that rely more on plants and healthy fats. High saturated fat diets can also increase the permeability of your gut, making it more likely that toxins and inflammatory substances will leak into your bloodstream.

One study showed that couples who had more hostile marital arguments had reduced gut microbial diversity and more unhealthy dietary patterns. In this study, the researchers videotaped and coded marital discussions for hostility and measured microbial diversity by assessing LPS-binding protein (LBP). Couples who had more hostile interactions had higher LBP which was, in turn, related to higher levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. Thus, this study showed a pathway from marital hostility to systemic inflammation via reduced gut biodiversity. In addition, the more hostile couples had diets higher in saturated fat which could affect the gut microbial and increase inflammation.

Implications for improving your health within a marriage 

  1. Work together on living healthier. When both you and your spouse or partner work concurrently on losing weight, sleeping more, exercising more, and/or drinking less, you are more likely to help each other succeed. Seeing your partner get healthier can motivate you to do the same.
  2. Work on communicating more compassionately and with mutual respect rather than in hostile ways. Remember that you are on the same side! Notice when conversations are going in a negative direction and call a break. Try to reduce your defensiveness and be more patient and less critical. 
  3. If your partner is stressed at work or by family or childcare, try to help out and be supportive. A less stressed spouse equals better health for both of you in the end. If your partner is still stressed despite your attempts to help, focus on reducing your own stress by distracting yourself, exercising, meditating or doing an enjoyable activity.

The more you understand the links between mind, body, and relationships, the more effective you can become at living a healthy, compassionate, and connected life.