Are Marital Problems Literally Bad for Your Heart?

According to a new study, couples who have high levels of marital discord are at increased risk for coronary artery disease (CAD). “Marital disruption (i.e., separation, divorce) and strain (i.e., conflict, dissatisfaction) predict the development of CHD (coronary heart disease) and poor prognosis for heart patients,” said Timothy W. Smith of the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah. “The uncertain role of marital quality in early stages of coronary artery disease (CAD) before the onset of clinically apparent CHD complicates the design of CHD risk assessments and risk-reducing interventions.” Marital discord can be strongly impacted by levels of affiliation and control and gender. “Women are sometimes more distressed by low affiliation in close relationships than are men, whereas men are often more troubled by concerns involving status or control,” said Smith.

In order to determine exactly what factors of marital discord affect heart health the most, Smith interviewed 153 couples and assessed their levels of anxiety and anger during a disagreement. Each participant rated their level of marital satisfaction and completed a coronary artery calcification (CAC) test. Smith found that the couples with the highest levels of discord exhibited increased anger and negative affect during the experiment. “Discordant couples also rated their spouses as generally lower in affiliation and somewhat higher in control during marital interactions and reported lower marital satisfaction, higher marital conflict, and less support from their spouse,” said Smith.

“As predicted, the discordant group had higher levels of CAC, independent of demographic characteristics, and biomedical and behavioral risk factors.” Smith added, “Hence, the association of behavior during marital disagreement with early, asymptomatic CAD was evident in discrete couple groups similar to those identified in taxometric studies of marital discord.” Smith believes these findings could lead to earlier detection and prevention of CAD. “Despite the added difficulty and expense, behavioral observations of couple interactions may be an important methodological approach in studying the association of relationship quality with cardiovascular health.”

Smith, T. W., Uchino, B. N., Berg, C. A., & Florsheim, P. (2011, December 19). Marital Discord and Coronary Artery Disease: A Comparison of Behaviorally Defined Discrete Groups. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026561

© Copyright 2011 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Vanessa


    January 2nd, 2012 at 6:41 AM

    I suppose there is a difference between serious marital woes and an occassional argument or two. I have always had a firm belief that some arguing between a couple is actually good for them, that it lets you get your feelings out and really express what you are feeling. If you keep it all bottled up on the inside then the other partner may not ever know what you are really thinking. But I guess going to the other extreme can obviously be bad for you too. You don’t want your married life to be filled only with stress and angst. There has to be some love in there too.

  • Garrison


    January 2nd, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    I would imagine that having to live day in and day out with such a horrible spouse would take quite a toll on one’s health. It is not normal to quibble about little things, and add to that the constant tension of living under the same roof with someone that you have probably come to detest, yes, I can see how this could be very detrimental to one’s well being. Perhaps in these cases a divorce should be in order.

  • eric


    January 2nd, 2012 at 12:31 PM

    ‘matters of the heart’ is not just a phrase then! you see it always seems like things we are emotionally related to have the ability to cause us a lot of heartache and now scientific studies find that these things can actually cause heart problems!amazing isnt it!

  • tresa


    January 3rd, 2012 at 8:29 AM

    so does reason for tension and stress also play a role in what negative effects occur?this sounds a bit scary.

  • SEAN


    January 3rd, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    All kinds of problems are bad for your heart if you ask me.There have been a lot of studies on how stress and pressure can affect your heart,so I don’t think there was any need to test the same for a set of problems(marital in this case) alone..

  • Sharon


    January 3rd, 2012 at 4:53 PM

    I’ll be danged if I let some man get me in that kind of shape! I would rather be alone than deal with that!

  • Pam


    January 4th, 2012 at 2:09 PM

    In my way of thinking if you let the problems consume you then they definitely will. But aren’t we supposed to be stronger than that and fight for the things that keep us strong and not those that continually bring us down?

  • peter collins

    peter collins

    January 5th, 2012 at 1:00 AM

    Marital problems are very stressful because of all the pressures a divorce can bring. Stress has already been linked to massive increases in the odds of having a heart problem or a stroke. That’s common knowledge. I don’t need to be a hotshot at the University of Utah to tell you that.

  • D.Val


    January 27th, 2012 at 2:15 AM

    Facing some marital problems can really affect someone’s heart because they tend to keep their feelings or troubles all to themselves and this would really increase their blood pressure.

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