Stressful Social Relations Can Take Years Off Your Life, Especially If You're a Put-Upon Husband

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What Women Really Think
May 9 2014 1:47 PM

Whiny Kids, Angry Spouses, and Mean Neighbors Can Drive You to an Early Grave

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Casualties of griping partners, perhaps

Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Be gentle with your fellow man, o spouses, relatives, neighbors, and children. A new paper from researchers in Denmark reveals that constantly fielding demands from or fighting with your co-travelers in life can kill you. 

For the study, available here at the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, almost 10,000 middle-aged Danish men and women (ages 36 to 52) were tracked for 11 years. At the outset, they answered two questions assessing how stressful they found their social interactions. The first—“in your everyday life, do you experience that any of the following people demand too much of you or seriously worry you?”—measured a sense of crushing expectation from “friends, neighbors, partners, extended family or children.” The second, drawing on the same cast of characters, read, “In your everyday life, do you experience conflicts with any of the following people?”

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And? As Time succinctly reports:

Nine percent of the participants reported always or often experiencing demands or worries from their partner, 10% from children, 6% from family and 2% from friends. And 6% always or often experienced conflicts with their partner, 6% with their children, 2% with their family and 1% with friends.

Now for the morbid part. Over the course of those 11 years, six percent of the men and four percent of the women vacated their mortal shells. When the researchers refracted the deaths through the responses they’d gleaned about querulous spouses and mean neighbors, they found a few links. (They also controlled via proportional hazard models for age, gender, marital status, social class, depressive symptoms, long-term medical conditions, and perceived emotional support.)

First, men and women who got in a lot of arguments were more likely to die prematurely, regardless of who they clashed with. The effect proved especially strong for unemployed people, who according to researchers may lack a crucial psychological and economic padding against stress.

Also, participants who “frequently” dealt with caviling partners and children saw their risk of early death jump by 50 to 100 percent. (Peevish friends, relatives, and neighbors presented no additional danger, so long as out-and-out conflict was avoided.) Strangest of all, a uniquely fragile mini-demographic emerged: men who felt hounded by their spouses. These guys proved “especially vulnerable to frequent worries/demands from their partner,” the researchers write, “contradicting earlier findings suggesting that women were more vulnerable to stressful social relations.”   

Especially if you are male, your complainy kids and/or spouse may indeed be eroding your will to live. I’m sorry. (But all the more reason not to track street crud across the floor!) Still, we probably shouldn’t retreat into vacant New Mexican caves just yet: freezing out our neighbors, friends, and family could be even worse for us than fighting with them. As Megan Brooks writes at Medscape, one of the few early mortality risk factors to rival smoking and high blood pressure—the two Big Bads of the field—is social isolation

Katy Waldman is Slate’s words correspondent. 

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