Why is it that married men are physically and mentally healthier than unmarried men, but for women in unhappy marriages, the reverse is true?
The answer may lie in differences in the way men and women process their spouses' and their own emotions, said University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Robert W. Levenson, PhD, at APA's 2001 Annual Convention.
Stressful, emotion-provoking situations, such as marital disagreements, can send people's hearts racing, among other physiological changes. But it's what men and women do once they're aroused that can affect their health, said Levenson. Researchers have found that those who have strategies to lower physiological arousal during stressful situations have better physical and mental health as well as higher marital satisfaction and stability.
Men are more likely to use such strategies, explained Levenson, because, "for husbands, the more physiologically aroused they are, the more negative they feel emotionally." However, "for wives, there's no significant relationship between how aroused they are and how badly they feel."
Such findings point to the possibility that men are in tune with their own emotions, while other research suggests women tune into their husbands' emotions.
For most husbands, when marital conflict produces negative emotion, "they experience higher autonomic arousal, they feel badly and they withdraw," Levenson said. When they remove themselves from the interaction, they down-grade their level of physiological arousal, and as a result, he believes, won't suffer any long-term harmful effects.
But when men don't withdraw from the situation and instead suppress their emotions, they become significantly more physiologically aroused--a less effective coping technique Levenson calls "stonewalling."
Because women's emotional experience doesn't always mirror their physiology, he explained, women may be physiologically aroused without actually experiencing negative emotions. If they aren't feeling bad, they attempt to stay engaged in the discussion while their husbands begin to withdraw or "stonewall"--leading wives to feel frustrated and even more stressed. In poor marriages, that continual heightened stress produces physiological responses in women than can lead to poorer health, Levenson theorized.
Another possible theory for unhappily married women's poorer health, said Levenson, takes into account how accurately married people can tell what their partner is feeling.
"Men and women are just as good at knowing what the other is feeling," he said. "However, there's a consequence of that that shows an interesting gender difference. When wives are accurately reading their husbands' emotions, they take on the physiology that their husbands are showing. Mean-while, husbands--who are just as good at knowing what their wives are feeling--don't show that kind of physiological activation."
These findings could mean that, in bad marriages where husbands are physiologically aroused, wives may take on their husbands' physiological arousal, resulting in additional long-term stress that can lead to women's poorer health.