Episode 20 - Why A Bad Marriage Is Worse For Women Than Men

podcast Jan 10, 2023
Do Divorce Right
Episode 20 - Why A Bad Marriage Is Worse For Women Than Men

In the episode, Becca shares highlights from research that suggests women suffer more from unhappy marriages than men do, and why.


Audio Transcript




In this episode I’m going to talk about why a bad marriage is worse for women than for men. I was just so taken by this study that I’ve read the articles, I’ve read the research and I feel that it’s important to pass along some of these findings. 


Married men live longer and healthier lives than unmarried men - apparently regardless of the happiness of the marriage.


A quick google on why this is the case came up with some fairly uninspiring hypotheses such as:

  • Because they have a wife to schedule their medical appointments and look after them when they’re unwell
  • Because they are more likely to eat healthier food and exercise 
  • And they’re less likely to smoke, drink excessively or engage in risky behaviours (unless he’s married to me!)

But for women being married doesn’t promise the same benefits. In fact, in unhappy marriages women’s mental and physical health suffers tremendously.


Psychologist Robert W. Levenson of the University of California suggests that the answer might lie in the way men and women process their spouses emotions and their own emotions. 


We all experience physiological arousal in stressful situations. This is our heart beating fast, a shortness in breath, perspiring, muscle tension etc. I’m sure that you can recall plenty of examples of when you’ve been in physiological arousal. It is not arousal in the good way. It can feel similar to your body’s response to anxiety or stress. 


It seems quite straightforward to hear that, ‘for husbands, the more physiologically aroused they are, the more negative they feel emotionally’. Ok, that sounds logical. 


But apparently ‘for wives there’s no significant relationship between how physiologically aroused they are and how badly they feel.’ 


This feels counter-intuitive but what it points to is the possibility that men are actually in tune with their emotions (wait for it, I’ll talk more about what they do with this!) than women. Because women are potentially tuning into their husband’s emotions, not their own.


So, in stressful situations such as arguing with a spouse - or sometimes even just entering an unhappy home! Men can feel that stress response, unconsciously recognise it and choose to withdraw because they want to downgrade that stress response. 


In doing this. In withdrawing from the confrontation or the opportunity to resolve whatever conflict or unhappiness is in the marriage, he is protecting himself from long-term harmful effects. 


The other option for protecting themselves, instead of withdrawing, is stonewalling. 


This is when he shuts down from conflict, will be unresponsive, evasive, will tune out, turn away or act busy. 


Men would likely describe this as de-escalating the situation.


But if it’s true then that women are not tuning into their own emotions but into their spouses emotions; then she doesn’t have the same opportunity to benefit from his coping mechanisms. She’s feeling the feelings, not withdrawing or stonewalling. 


So her physiological arousal remains high. 


You can picture it can’t you? 


Things have been shitty in the marriage for some time. There doesn’t seem to be a resolution in sight. Husband walks into the home and obviously he feels unhappy and so he retreats somewhere; behind the television, into the garage, behind a computer or a call. Whatever - but it not towards you to have a conversation!


And so even if you’ve had a wonderful day. Feeling on top of the world, kicked some badass goals and had a little singalong car-e-oke on your drive home from wherever…


Even if you weren’t feeling bad, you weren’t physiologically aroused in any way, you aren’t experiencing negative emotions.. Still you will unconsciously try to stay engaged or enter into a discussion and you will adopt his emotions - the ones that he’s doing so well at ignoring and pushing away. 


So, in a bad marriage, where conflict or unhappiness is continued over time, the wife is essentially in a situation of chronic stress which can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies.


In a stressful situation our body's stress response system is usually self-balancing. 


Once the perceived threat has passed, our hormone levels return to normal. 


And as the adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, our heart rate, blood pressure etc return to normal. 


But when these stressors are always present - such as the situation I’ve just described and an unhappy home where there is no resolution - our cortisol levels remain high and this long-term activation of the stress response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt almost all of your body's processes. 

This exposure to chronic stress can lead to increased risk of 

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and pain
  • Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment


I am not sharing this to cause any panic, or to encourage anyone to leave their marriage if things aren’t working out. All marriages, all relationships, will have some bad patches and if there’s a chance to resolve these then I wish the couple all the success in doing so. 

I share this because I found this study fascinating, if not altogether surprising. 

And for anyone who is listening and can identify with these long term stresses in your marriage, please find ways to take care of yourself until something fundamental changes. 


I’d love to hear your reaction to this study. What do you think? 

Do you agree that a bad marriage is worse for women than man?

Is there something women can do differently to not take on the physiological arousal of their partner? 

DM me on Instagram, my handle is @dodivorceright, 

Or on Facebook search for Becca Maxwell - do divorce right. 

I’d love to hear what your reaction is to this particular study. 


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