How is your Spouse’s Health Impacting Yours?
When Sharon Vecchiarelli’s husband was diagnosed with cancer in February 2011, their world was completely turned upside down. It quickly fell to her to manage his care, find the right doctors, try to keep their two children’s lives as normal as possible, update family and friends, and take care of the house and property. “You name it, and it was on my to-do list,” she says.
Vecchiarelli mostly ate in the car, and it was all food she would never have eaten before. Her stress was sky high. In the end, she gained 40 pounds, had aches and pains in her hips and knees, acid reflux, and her period completely stopped.
This is an extreme but all too common example of how the health of one spouse can negatively affect the other. Whether it’s exercise or eating habits, stress, or illness, it’s two for the price of one.
UM Study on Chronic Stress
A recent study out of the University of Michigan focused on chronic stress – that is, occurring for more than a year to the point of overwhelming everything else. Marriage can be detrimental for weight gain and possibly lead to obesity when couples 50 and older are stressed, the study found. The results varied by gender.
“Marriage has powerful influences on health,” study lead author Kira Birditt says. “The stress experienced by partners, and not the individual’s stress, was associated with increased waist circumference. This effect of stress was even stronger in particular spousal relationships.” The findings are applicable to younger couples as well.
Kristen Carpenter, Director of Women’s Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, isn’t surprised by these results. She says they’re consistent with decades of research on couples suggesting that marital quality and stress affect health.
The effect of marriage
When two people are in a long-term committed relationship, they’ve chosen to share their lives with one another. This means they tend to share priorities, have similar habits, and engage in similar activities, says Carpenter. “When an individual is stressed, depressed, or anxious, they tend to be less likely to engage in healthy habits – exercise, self-care, eating right. When those habits are shared, both parties suffer.”
After all, marriage is clearly not a vacuum, says Dr. Marc Leavey, a primary care doctor who has been in practice for over 40 years. Each partner exerts a sphere of influence on the other, whether negative or positive. Longer married couples likely have more integrated habits between them, he says. “It is likely that a strong partner could overwhelm the other with his or her situation and issues; and it is also likely that a passive partner could allow him or herself to be subsumed into the other,” he says.
When asked if other factors may make this more likely, such as age or gender, Carpenter says unfortunately most studies looking at the relationships among marital quality, stress and health aren’t designed to examine this question. “It’s a direction in which we need to go,” she says.
Prevention and maintenance
Making stress management a deliberate part of your daily life and encouraging your partner to do the same is Carpenter’s first recommendation.
“Marital quality is much more strongly related to mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety than physical health outcomes,” says Carpenter. It’s important to see how marital distress contributes to these issues.
Vecchiarelli didn’t realize how “off” she was until about three years after her husband’s original diagnosis. She says she was operating on fumes: Always tired, drained, juggling way too much, and still showing up to all the Little League games and choir recitals. It wasn’t until this year that she’s made huge strides in learning about and implementing self-care in a genuinely supportive way. In fact, she’s lost 33 pounds, meditates regularly, no longer experiences aches and pains, and her acid reflux is gone and she has better life habits. Now her husband’s lymphoma is in complete remission, so they’re balanced again.
If you recognize that your health is suffering because of your partner, Dr. Leavey says to analyze the situation as best as you can. Try to understand what the central problem is, what actions are being taken in reaction to it, and what might be needed to correct the issue. Assigning blame or trying to just change doesn’t work, he says, and enlisting the aid of others – family, friends, professionals, family physician – may help.
He knows whereof he speaks – not just professionally, but personally. In 1995, Dr. Leavey’s wife of 23+ years suddenly became ill with liver failure. He was a physician in a busy primary care practice, with four children, and had to keep his in-laws apprised of the situation without getting them too upset. His wife eventually recovered, but nothing was the same. They do more together, travel more, and cherish each day. When she decided to start exercising, he supported it, and even takes a turn on the treadmill now and then. Their food is healthier, which helps them both.
Partners can work together to become healthier. Carpenter offers some suggestions on how to do so:
- Share your health-related goals as well as plans for achieving them
- Encourage your partner to take care of himself even when having an “off” day
- Communicate with one another about your stress levels so you can better support each other
- Seek help from each other, but also look to others for support
Dr. Leavey says partners should be open to identifying problems and be non-judgmental in finding solutions, and be creative in the process.
When Vecchiarelli looks back, she can see that feeling at loose ends was the hardest thing for her. Once she had a system of organization in place, she felt better. Her tips can apply to anyone, not just those with a seriously ill spouse:
- Know you’re not alone
- Talk to others in your position, but do it away from the patient
- When you’re inundated with well meaning suggestions, referrals, alternative treatments, and horror stories, tell them to email you the information and you’ll consider it (this lets them feel like they’re supporting you, yet you don’t have to address their needs in the moment)
- Call on your good friends, because they really want to help and may not know how
Ultimately, Vecchiarelli learned she’s capable of more than she ever imagined. She learned that she has to address her health and well-being before she can even think of helping another person. “Nothing can prepare you for the illness of a spouse, but you can learn from it,” she says.
Dr. Leavey says it shouldn’t take a devastating illness to produce a dramatic change in a couple, but unfortunately this is often the case. “Perhaps someone reading this could take a moment, reflect on her life and marriage, and consider changes – large or small – that could help in some way,” he says.