Bliss is best: Spats with spouse worsen chronic pain

Most people don’t like to argue with their spouse for general reasons of happiness and harmony at home. Now it turns out there are physiological reasons as well for older people with certain chronic conditions to keep the peace, according to new research from Penn State Center for Healthy Aging.

Lisa Terry, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in Vero Beach, confirms the study results. In her own practice, she often sees a connection between spousal tension and the worsening of health-related symptoms, although it’s can be a bit of a chicken and egg thing. “The illness can affect the relationship as much as the relationship can affect the illness,” she says.

In their study, the Penn State team used data from two groups of participants: one group of 145 people with osteoarthritis in the knee; another of 129 people with type 2 diabetes. All participants kept daily diaries for about three weeks on their mood, how severe their symptoms were, and whether their interactions with their spouse were positive or negative.

The researchers found that within both groups, the study participants were in a worse mood and had greater pain or more severe symptoms on days when the tension between them and their spouses was higher than usual.

The Penn State team says that while previous studies have shown a connection between satisfying marriages and better health, there’s been a lack of research into how day-to-day experiences impact those with chronic illness.

Study lead Lynn Martire, professor of human development and family studies, says “other studies have looked at the quality of someone’s marriage right now. But we wanted to drill down and examine how positive or negative interactions with your spouse affect your health from day to day.”

She adds: “It was exciting that we were able to see this association in two different data sets – two groups of people with two different diseases. The findings gave us insight into how marriage might affect health, which is important for people dealing with chronic conditions like arthritis or diabetes.”

The researchers also found that when the people in the arthritis group had greater pain, they were in a worse mood the next day and experienced greater tension with their spouse.

Of the arthritis group, Penn State’s Martire says, “this almost starts to suggest a cycle where your marital interactions are more tense, you feel like your symptoms are more severe, and the next day you have more marital tension again.”

Terry describes a pattern she often sees that takes Martire’s observation one step further: “Chronic illness can exacerbate a person’s natural tendencies. Someone who often gets agitated when healthy is likely to be even more easily agitated when they are suffering from a condition they have to live with for a long period of time.”

On the flip side, Terry says people who deal well with adversity are likely to take extra steps, such as practicing deep breathing or meditation, to remain calm and centered when faced with a chronic illness.

The study results were recently published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine. In light of their conclusion that the overall quality of spousal relationships may have some impact on health, the researchers believe there is value in creating interventions specifically targeted to couples who are dealing with a chronic disease.

Terry offers this advice on how to keep relationships on an even keel when dealing with an illness. “The most important thing is for the person with the illness to have good self-care. Controlling what you can control makes you feel like less of a victim and makes it less likely that you will place blame on your spouse for how he or she is reacting to your situation.”

If you feel a visit with a therapist could help your relationship with your spouse, Terry suggests that you plan ahead so that you can talk about specifics, as it’s much easier to work through a specific issue rather than a general feeling of discontent.

The Terry Mindfulness Center is located at 333 17th Street, Suite 2T in Vero Beach. The phone number is 772. 564. 0406 and they can be found on the web at   

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