Study: Bad Hormones Lead to Bad Marriages

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.

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