Author: Claudia M. Elsig, MD
Stable, supportive relationships are incredibly powerful. Research shows that high marital quality is associated with lower blood pressure, lower stress, less depression, and higher satisfaction with life.1
But just as a balanced and healthy relationship can positively impact well-being, not all marriages work out that way. Criticism, arguments or feeling let down by your partner can play havoc with your mental health.
“People always fall in love with the most perfect aspects of each other’s personalities. Who wouldn’t? Anybody can love the most wonderful parts of another person. But that’s not the clever trick. The really clever trick is this: Can you accept the flaws? Can you look at your partner’s faults honestly and say, ‘I can work around that. I can make something out of it.’? Because the good stuff is always going to be there, and it’s always going to be pretty and sparkly, but the crap underneath can ruin you.” – Elizabeth Gilbert
Maintaining a healthy relationship is complex, and surviving marriage beyond the honeymoon period is challenging for many couples. The stresses and strains of everyday life, the emergence of annoying habits, communication blocks, and a waning of emotional connection can quickly derail an otherwise happy partnership.
Sadly, marriage breakdown is an increasingly common phenomenon in western society. A marriage can wreck your mental health.
Any disagreements in a marriage are stressful, but when properly managed, conflict can help couples learn about each other and improve their relationship.
However, ongoing unresolved conflict is harmful. When there are continued arguments in a relationship, research shows it restricts the processes that lead to good mental health.2
Faced with ongoing conflict, a person can feel rejected and emotionally disconnected, and this limits the desire to seek support. Unresolved conflict can influence sleep and mood and lead to anxiety and depression. When the future of marriage lacks promise, a sense of hopelessness can set in.
Marital discord also impacts other areas of life, such as parenting or work. Then depressive symptoms come indirectly via functional impairment.2
There are many health consequences associated with marital conflict. A study using data from 250 couples over almost 20 years found that couples who regularly fought early in their marriage were likely to continue that pattern, and partners who argued frequently were more likely to feel lonely and experience poorer physical health outcomes than others their age.3
Conflict in a relationship can cause damaging responses in the body, such as inflammation, changes in appetite and an increase in the release of stress hormones. Continued stress affects various aspects of health, from cardiovascular function to immunity.
Marital conflict is particularly damaging to mental health if hostility, aggression or abusive behaviours are involved.
Just as bonds form early in life between infants and parents, romantic love also represents an attachment process.4 Importantly, adult attachment predicts mental health — adults who experienced positive attachment as infants are more likely to form more stable and satisfying adult relationships.
So, what is attachment?
Attachment theory explains how individuals form emotional bonds to meet basic needs and how psychological disturbances, such as depression and anxiety, are linked to the disruption of these bonds.5
Insecure forms of attachment in infancy impact closeness and emotional intimacy in adult relationships. This can make certain individuals more worried about being underappreciated or abandoned by their romantic partners.6
Individuals who haven’t had good attachment experiences as children aren’t always unsupportive and withdrawn or clingy and demanding. But certain stressful situations can make managing subconscious desires and emotional needs more challenging, which can threaten a relationship’s stability and quality. For example, a person with poor attachment experience as an infant may find it hard to trust a partner in adulthood. Those with a fearful avoidant attachment style may crave attention.
So, why does attachment style matter in marriage?
The interaction of two individual attachment styles has implications for the trajectory of a relationship.5 For example, an insecure-disorganised spouse is difficult for anyone to be married to. Their relationships are hectic and unstable. This type of person is erratic and complicated and often has mental health issues of some sort. Being married to this type of person can wreck your mental health.
Without treatment, childhood trauma continues to affect a person in adulthood. For example, a person who has experienced childhood trauma may be passive, passive-aggressive or aggressive in their communication. They could be indirect and apologetic or dishonest, blaming, and controlling. These behaviours put a great deal of strain on a relationship.
Unhealed trauma is a dynamic force in an intimate relationship, often creating emotionally fuelled disagreements, misunderstandings, and doubt. For a partner on the receiving end, it can be incredibly challenging.
In a marriage, loneliness happens when a person feels their partner doesn’t understand their needs and wants. A lack of attention increases the risk of mental health issues like anxiety and depression. This could be because a spouse is a workaholic and never at home, or it could be a more sinister deliberation, such as being ignored by a narcissist.
Feeling lonely in a marriage has consequences. For example, when a person is lonely, they are less likely to engage in healthy activities and behaviours, such as exercising and eating healthily.
Loneliness affects sleep, increases stress, lowers self-esteem and causes a spiral of negative thinking.
Toxicity in the guise of love
Extreme events and circumstances do obvious damage to mental health, such as domestic violence, for example. But in a marriage, there are also lots of subtleties at play that can chip away at mental well-being.
It takes time to get to know somebody. Narcissists can be charming at the beginning of a relationship, but marry one, and life can look very different in a year or two or even within a few months. There is no end to the psychological damage a narcissist can cause.
Being married to a narcissist can lead to low self-esteem, diminished healthy connections with others, and restricted access to the resources that support well-being.
With a narcissistic spouse, you will likely experience emotional abuse, verbal abuse, general bad behaviour, and silent treatment. Anxiety and depression commonly develop because of narcissistic abuse.
The imposition of relatives
The parent-child relationship can have a more extensive effect on marriage than expected. There are hundreds of online articles about surviving marriage with the ‘in-laws’!
Without healthy boundaries, parents, siblings and other close relatives can cause conflict and confusion in a marriage. In addition, if money is involved (parents contributing to a house purchase, for example), many strings can be attached.
This can place enormous pressure on a marriage and diminish self-worth.
It’s a fact that children add stress to a marriage, mainly when the kids are young. It’s common for couples to have differences of opinion on all manner of things, including parenting.
Although parenting disagreements are expected, they can create chasms in a relationship when unresolved. Parenting differences can lead to an emotional and physical disconnect, a lack of trust, and behavioural changes. Disagreement about parenting puts a relationship at risk and negatively impacts the children.
Parenting stress, especially when there are differences of opinion, can lead to depression.
Repairing mental health broken by marriage
Any person can reach a point in their life where it seems they can no longer go on or face significant challenges. Traumatising childhood experiences, losses, separations, psychological or physical abuse, and chronic stress can all be reasons for developing fears, depression, burnout, addictions or eating disorders.
The CALDA Clinic is a private, owner-operated facility specialising in rehabilitation programs for mental health. You can heal if your mental health feels wrecked by a broken marriage. Call our team now for a private discussion. We will be happy to provide you with further information.
- Holt-Lunstad J et al. 18 Mar 2008. Is there something unique about marriage? The relative impact of marital status, relationship quality, and network social support on ambulatory blood pressure and mental health. Ann Behav Med. 2008 Apr;35(2):239-44.
- Choi H, Marks N F. 12 Aug 2008. Marital Conflict, Depressive Symptoms, and Functional Impairment. J Marriage Fam. 2008; 70(2): 377–390.
- Beeson L. 21 Oct 2020. Marital conflict causes loneliness, health problems. University of Georgia. College of Family and Consumer Sciences. [Accessed online 16 Mar 2023].
- Hazan C, Shaver P. Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987 Mar;52(3):511-24.
- Pirola F. 2011. Together Apart – Attachment Style in Marriage. In Threshold Magazine. [Accessed online 17 Mar 2023].
- Zhang X et al. The relationship between adult attachment and mental health: A meta-analysis. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2022 Nov;123(5):1089-1137.