Study: Bad Hormones Lead to Bad Marriages

If this were a perfect world, engaged couples would be able to take some kind of a test that would tell them whether their planned marriage would succeed.

If they flunked, they would go back to the dating game. If they succeeded, they would be guaranteed a life of blissful matrimony.

Well, guess what. It's not a perfect world. But researchers at the Ohio State University Medical Center have come up with what seems to be a very reliable predictor of divorce. It's not the kind of thing that's likely to be turned into a prenuptial divorce meter anytime soon, but it speaks volumes about why some marriages fail and others succeed.

It turns out that it's all in the hormones.

Bad Marriage = Bad Health

Back in 1988, the researchers picked 90 newly wedded couples to take part in a research project. The goal was to determine how much of a role interpersonal relationships have on such things as stress, and whether that has an impact on health.

"We wanted to look at a really important close personal relationship, marriage," says Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychiatry at OSU and one of the leaders of the project.

The participants were selected from more than 2,200 couples who had volunteered for the study. People with obvious problems that could disrupt a marriage, such as chronic depression or alcohol dependency, were eliminated. Too many variables would cloud the results of the study, so only couples who seemed to have everything going for them were allowed into the project.

The 90 couples selected for the research were downright "blissful," according to William Malarkey, professor of internal medicine and immunology, another leader of the research group.

Each of the couples spent 24 hours in the university's Clinical Research Center. An intravenous tube was inserted into each participant so that blood could be drawn at regular intervals without interruption.

As video cameras rolled, the couples were interviewed and asked to discuss — or even resolve — some of the problems in their marriage. Even "blissful" couples have some problems.

The researchers achieved their first goal early on, and over the years they have reported in various professional journals that hostility between the partners reduced the effectiveness of their immunological systems. Among the couples who seemed the most hostile during the discussion of marital troubles, three hormones — epinephrine (better known as adrenalin), norepinephrine and ACTH — rose considerably in the blood samples.

That's significant because those hormones are known as immune inhibitors, meaning they "down regulate" the immune system, Kiecolt-Glaser says. That, in turn, could leave the person more vulnerable to disease.

Further study of the blood samples has convinced the researchers that a bad marriage could lead to bad health, but more recently they have focused on whether those early blood samples could tell them anything about the chances of the marriages succeeding.

Hormones Predicted the Future

All 90 couples were tracked down 10 years after the project had begun. Only 19 percent were divorced, well below the national average, so there apparently really was bliss in most of the marriages.

But when the researchers took a close look at the failed marriages, they were in for a surprise.

Although such things as aggression and a negative attitude are generally thought of as the best predictors of divorce, the researchers found a more tantalizing clue in the blood samples collected more than a decade earlier. Those same three hormones — epinephrine, norepinephrine and ACTH — were "consistently and significantly elevated in the couples" who later divorced, Kiecolt-Glaser says.

These are "stress hormones," the "fight or flight" chemical messengers that are supposed to tell us whether to hang around and duke it out or run for cover.

"If those hormones stay up, you're probably going to have higher blood pressure, higher heart rate, and it's not good for your body," she says. The elevated hormone level didn't just appear in the blood drawn during the discussion of marital problems, she adds, it was present in later samples, even those drawn while the participants were asleep.

And hormone production was far greater among the women than the men.

So what does all that tell us? Did hormones destroy the marriage? And why did the women's bodies react more than the men's?

The hormones, Kiecolt-Glaser says, did not destroy the marriages. They were produced because something was wrong in the relationship between the two people, and they probably didn't even know it.

Tuning In

If the couples had been able to listen to what their bodies were telling them, she says, they probably would have picked up on an "uneasiness" about the relationship.

The women produced more hormones than the men because "women notice hostility a lot more," she adds. "They are much more attuned to the quality of the relationship. Men just don't even see a lot of the negativity or hostility that women see."

So the hormone levels in the female partners in the doomed marriages shot up, and stayed up, despite the fact that during the interviews they insisted everything was fine in their relationship.

Since the partners were newly married and in a state of "bliss," Kiecolt-Glaser suspects, they just glossed over the problems rather than addressing them.

She doesn't see any practical application for this research. A hormone count is not likely to be required before a marriage license can be issued. Counselors are not likely to draw blood.

But it all suggests that sometimes, our bodies know best. Now all we have to do is figure out how to listen to them.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.