A recent study from the University of Utah revealed that a woman in a strained or bad marriage is at risk for depressed mood, hypertension, obesity and other signs of metabolic syndrome. This makes women  more vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

While a man in a bad marriage is also more likely to feel depressed, he doesn't face the same risk of metabolic syndrome, which is characterized by five symptoms--high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low levels of HDL or good cholesterol, and obesity around the waistline.

During the study couples filled out several questionnaires that included 10 scales:

  • three to assess positive aspects of marriage quality, such as mutual support, emotional warmth and friendliness, and confiding in each other;
  • three scales to measure negative aspects of marital quality such as arguments, feelings of hostility and extent of disagreement over various topics such as kids, sex, money and in-laws;
  • and four scales to gauge symptoms of depression (not necessarily full-blown clinical depression).

Couples also had their waists and blood pressure measured and underwent lab tests for "good" cholesterol, fasting glucose and triglycerides. Together, those data determined if a study participant had metabolic syndrome. Any couple that already had cardiovascular disease was excluded.

"We hypothesized that negative aspects of marriages like arguing and being angry would be associated with higher levels of metabolic syndrome," says the study's first author, Nancy Henry, a doctoral student in psychology. "We further anticipated that this relationship would be at least partly due to depressive symptoms."

In other words, adds Henry, those who reported experiencing more conflict, hostility and disagreement with their spouses would be more depressed, which in turn would be associated with a higher risk of heart disease due to metabolic syndrome.

"We found this was true for wives in this study, but not for husbands," says Henry. "The gender difference is important because heart disease is the number-one killer of women as well as men, and we are still learning a lot about how relationship factors and emotional distress are related to heart disease."

However, researchers are quick to point out that this doesn't mean women should boycott relationships or marriage to stay healthy. Instead, there is good evidence that women should modify some of the things that affect metabolic syndrome - like diet and exercise, says Tim Smith, a psychology professor and study co-author. "But it's a little premature to say they would lower their risk of heart disease if they improved the tone and quality of their marriages, or dumped their husbands," he adds.

Smith also heads a larger University of Utah study on the role of marriage quality in heart disease, which includes this newer study as well. Data from the larger study indicate that a history of divorce is associated with coronary disease, Smith adds, noting that future research will investigate whether improving marriage can improve health.

The new study backs up previous research that found women are more sensitive and responsive to relationship problems than men. The results of this study suggest those problems could harm women's health. Finding ways to improve a bad marriage might help your emotional and physical well-being.