Unhappy Marriage, Less Diabetes?

Sometimes, when researchers prepare to begin a study, they have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to find — it’s unlikely, for example, that any scientist studying consumption of sugary soda would predict that drinking more of it leads to any positive health outcomes. But in a recent study on marriage happiness and diabetes, researchers were very wrong ahead of time in predicting what they’d see in men — and exactly right in their prediction when it came to women.

The study, published late last month in The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, involved 1,228 married people between the ages of 57 and 85 who lived independently (not in an assisted-living facility). They were individually interviewed at home about the quality of their marriage twice: first in 2005–2006, and again in 2010–2011. At these interviews, participants also had their HbA1c level (a measure of long-term blood glucose control) measured using a fingerstick test, and were asked if they’d received a diagnosis of diabetes.


As noted in a MedPageToday article on the study, the information on HbA1c and diabetes diagnosis allowed the researchers to piece together who had well controlled diabetes, who had undiagnosed diabetes, and who had diagnosed but poorly controlled diabetes. They could also see how this status changed between the first interview and the second, and whether there was any relationship between diabetes status and marital happiness.

Not surprisingly, in both men and women, the rate of diabetes increased between the first and second interviews — from 18% to 29% — while measures of marital quality were relatively stable. This means it’s unlikely that changes in diabetes status had any impact on marital happiness, while marital happiness could very well have influenced who got diabetes. And while women who reported happier marriages were less likely to develop diabetes, the opposite was true for men.

In fact, for every unit of decreased marital satisfaction (such as reporting being dissatisfied with your spouse’s behavior), men were 32% less likely to develop diabetes. In men who already had diabetes at the time of the first interview, each unit of decreased marital satisfaction was found to reduce the odds of having uncontrolled diabetes, at the time of the second interview, by 58%. In contrast, each unit of increased marital satisfaction lowered a woman’s odds of developing diabetes by 45%.

The researchers speculated that these results could be explained by the fact that wives are more likely to nag their husbands about healthy behaviors than vice versa, which previous studies have found to be the case. Under this explanation, nagging from a spouse could lead to both an unhappier marriage and better behaviors that create a lower risk of developing diseases like diabetes. While these results might be trumpeted as a victory for nagging, it’s worth noting that many people might prefer a happier marriage over better diabetes control or not having diabetes. It’s also worth noting that having a happy marriage might lead, in some people, to complacency about health and healthy behaviors.

What’s your reaction to this study — do you think your spouse’s prodding has made you adopt healthier behaviors than you otherwise would have? Has this nagging or prodding also caused some resentment? Do you think you’re less likely to care about healthy habits when you’re happy? Is it possible to get your spouse to adopt healthier behaviors without causing resentment and strain in the marriage? Can you think of an explanation other than nagging that might explain the study’s results? Leave a comment below!

  • Fascinating. Offhand, I don’t like the nagging theory. I don’t believe nagging changes behavior much. And the stress of a bad marriage should increase diabetes risk. My wife’s theory is that maybe husbands are happier with wives who give them a lot of comfort food. My crackpot theory is that men who are unhappy in their marriages might keep themselves in better health to be more attractive to other women.