Yet they stay rooted, glued to the status quo despite feeling miserable. Reasons can range from guilt and fear to family or financial commitments.
But there might be an even more compelling reason for leaving than simple ennui — your health.
Two recent studies on relationships and health have shown that sticking it out in an unhappy union can actually make you sick. The effects on your well-being can range from general, persistent poor health right through to serious medical conditions such as heart disease.
In Sickness and in Health
Researchers from the University of Texas conducted a study of over 1,000 married people in the U.S., surveying them in 1986, 1989 and 1994. The results of the study, entitled You Make Me Sick: Marital Quality and Health Over the Life Course, were published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior in 2006.
The study, led by sociology professor Debra Umberson, PhD, asked participants to rate their health and the quality of their marriage. Some examples of the types of questions participants were asked include: “How much does your husband/wife make you feel loved and cared for?” And “How often do you feel bothered or upset by your marriage?”
The results of the survey showed that, over time, everyone’s perception of their own health appeared to decline. And while aging and increased poor health are an unfortunate fact of life, the decline in self-rated health happened quicker for people who were unhappy with their marriage.
The research team’s findings suggested that years of strain, “putting up” with an unsatisfactory, unsatisfying marriage may slowly erode health. The compound effect of years of subtle but persistent emotional strain becomes more visible as we grow older. The study also found that existing medical conditions were also exacerbated by the stress of an unhappy marriage.
The study showed that people in unhappy marriages on the whole had more health issues than people who were happily married.
“The married do exhibit better health than the unmarried but it is not the case that any marriage is better than no marriage at all when it comes to health benefits,” says Umberson.
Interestingly, those participants who were divorced were reportedly in better health than participants who were still in unhappy unions.
The moral to this story is clear: “Unhappily married individuals have yet another reason to identify marital difficulties and seek to improve marital quality: Their very health may depend upon it.”
The Heart of the Matter
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a British study has found that ongoing dissatisfaction in close personal relationships causes stress, anxiety and depression that can increase the chances of heart disease.
In the years between 1985 and 1990, Roberto De Vogli, PhD, a researcher at University College London, conducted a study of civil servants with an average age in the mid-40s.
Participants were asked to answer questions about their close personal relationships, with a focus on their primary romantic relationship. The questions focused on things like how much stress or worries their partner had caused them in the previous 12-month period, and whether they felt that talking with their partner seemed to helped matters or made things worse.
Following up with his interview subjects 12 years later, De Vogli found that of the 8,499 respondents who finished questionnaires for the original study, 589 men and women had since been diagnosed with heart disease.
None of the 8,499 participants had any history of heart disease at the start of the study.
Participants who had indicated that talking to their partner about problems made things worse were the most affected. The study found they were 34 per cent more likely to have a heart problem compared with participants who had reported more positive interactions in their close personal relationships.
Researchers involved with the study suggested that those with high feelings of negativity in a relationship would mentally ‘replay’ the negative interactions they had with their partner, the results of which caused additional stress, anxiety and depression. These conditions were more likely, De Vogli said, to diminish general health and, in this case, increase the risk of heart disease.
Those in a happy, successful relationship will tell you, effective communication with your partner is essential.
At the heart of so many unhappy relationships is an inability to communicate effectively, resulting in anger, frustration, stress and consequently, a decline in health and well-being.
It’s enough to break your heart, literally.