Marriage Stress and Inflammation In the Body

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Stress in her marriage was a regular burden for twenty-nine-year old homemaker Lexi. Arguing with Finn, her thirty-two-year old IT consultant husband about household chores was a daily occurrence. She wanted him to help her and take on more duties, while he felt that he wasn’t appreciated for the responsibilities he did take on and was criticized for the tasks he took on to help Lexi. Marriage stress weighed heavily on Finn too. Like Lexi, he went to bed exhausted and alone, sensing the few inches between them on the bed as a massive chasm that echoed their arguments over and over again.

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Marriage stress and sleep deprivation

Marriage stress ruined the sleep of Lexi and Finn. They both felt groggy and grumpy when they got up. Lexi gradually warmed up to her daily grind and expected Finn to do the same. But he suffered severe sinus inflammation which prevented him from breathing properly. Marriage stress was coming out in his body and threatening his very existence as he gasped for breath. Sinus inflammation came with throbbing headaches. Stress in his marriage deprived him of sleep and layered on a depleting inflammatory response.

Marriage Stress related to your Parents’ marital state

Lexi hated not having enough sleep. It made it so much harder to deal with the kids’ needs, manage their extra-curricular activities and do most of the household tasks. She grew up in a home where her grandma had helped her mother and her father had done his bit at weekends. Everyone in the family and extended family all chipped in making it normal for jobs to be shared. She had imagined that her marital life would be similar with both sides of the family filling in when the kids came along. She had no idea that she was going to shoulder the responsibility to such a great extent. Marital stress gripped her in a vice that was intolerable, and she let Finn know about it.

When the arguments started up again, Lexi spoke openly about her emotions. She told Finn how fed up she was, how hurt she felt about his attitude to sharing household jobs. She let him know that she was angry and resentful, disappointed and often hating him.  She dreaded the marriage stress rising to the surface, affecting her sleep patterns. And that is exactly what happened. Expect that she didn’t have any inflammatory responses.

Finn remembered his parents being respectful to one and other. His father made the rules and his mother followed along. His father was very attentive towards his mother, and spoiled her rotten. His mother welcomed the job she had been given to manage the household and the kids’ day to day activities. They had a clear division of labor and it worked well. He expected the same life-style when he got married. It had started out that way, but Lexi got more resentful of that role after the kids started school. She felt trapped in Finn’s view of marriage which didn’t suit her.

Lexi got on Finn’s nerves from the moment he got home from work to the moment he went to bed. The evening grew tenser after he kids went to bed leaving the couple to deal with unspoken marital stress. Bound in a fog of discomfort, a hair trigger change of channel on TV or a sound of cupboards opening and closing in the kitchen would set them off in spiraling arguments that spewed out the same grievances night after night.


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Marriage stress and inflammation

Finn’s way of arguing was more passive and certainly much less emotional. He gritted his teeth, took big sighs, tried to avoid Lexi and said he had nothing more to add to his frustration at not being seen and acknowledged. His muscles tightened and he looked as if he were a landmine ready to explode, just sitting here until someone stepped on him. He ended up with disturbed sleep AND an inflamed response to the marriage stress. His sinus cavities burned with inflammation. He couldn’t breathe, felt bunged up and unable to function. Finn had to take steroids in order to manage the inflammation, which diminished his immune system, making him more prone to marriage stress.


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Openly sharing emotions during marital conflict prevents inflammatory response

The journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2017 reported  that while marriage stress disturbed sleep for both partners, the spouse that expressed their emotions during a marital disagreement avoided the inflammatory response. Before martial stress from a fight, both partners recorded similar levels of IL-6 (a marker of inflammation) after lost and or disrupted sleep. So the sleep deprivation was not the cause of raised inflammation.

Researchers found that marital stress interfered with the amount of sleep couples had, but that even with 1 hour less than normal sleep at night, the partner with low emotional expression has an 11% higher level of IL-6 production after a martial conflict. Findings also showed that partners who had low emotional expression during marital conflict, tended to sleep less and have higher levels of IL-6 than those who slept more.

Lexi expressed her emotions during and after the fights with Finn, sparing her an inflammatory reaction. Finn kept his emotions locked up and suffered with a severe inflammation of his sinuses which was painful in itself, but made worse with piercing headaches that accompanied the inflammation.

Couples therapy reduced marital stress, improved sleep and reduced Finn’s inflammatory sinus response

Distraught with lack of sleep and marital stress, Lexi and Finn began couples counseling. They learned about their different expectations and views about married life, which brought the tension under control. Watching the way they engaged when they disagreed enabled me as their therapist to help Finn share and express his emotions, just as Lexi could already do. The mutual expression of emotions brought them closer, they slept better and Finn’s sinus inflammations tapered off.  None of this happened over night, and there were many relapses, because it wasn’t comfortable for Finn to express his emotions, let alone have them heard by Lexi. But he practiced while I worked with Lexi to encourage and accept her husband’s emotions, so that they could lower the temperature of the disagreement and recoup their energies with restful sleep.


copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D. 2017


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