TIME relationships

Who Knew? Husbands Can Be Nagged to Death

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Frederic Cirou—Getty Images/PhotoAlto

Danish research suggests a demanding spouse and whiny kids can send a person to an early grave--and that men are more vulnerable than women

A new study suggests that being needled by or arguing a lot with spouses, neighbors or relatives can shorten a person’s life. And that men, particularly those who are unemployed, are especially susceptible.

The research, published online in published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, asked almost 10,000 Danish men and women aged 36 to 52 about their daily social interactions. The researchers were pretty nosy, asking participants two main questions: “In your everyday life, do you experience that any of the following people demand too much of you or seriously worry you?’ and “In your everyday life, do you experience conflicts with any of the following people?” participants could choose friends, neighbors, partners, extended family or children.

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.

In the course of the 11 years that the Danes were followed, 4% of the women and 6% of the men died, mostly of cancer, but also of the usual life-ending maladies: heart disease, liver disease from drinking, or accidents and suicide. And even after taking into account such factors as gender, marital status, long term conditions, depressive symptoms, available emotional support, and social class (defined by job title), the researchers determined that those who were frequently worried by or had demands placed on them by partners and/or children had a 50%-100% higher risk of early mortality than those who lived more peaceable lives.

“In this study, we found that men were especially vulnerable to frequent worries/demands from their partner, contradicting earlier findings suggesting that women were more vulnerable to stressful social relations,” write the authors, Rikke Lund, Ulla Christensen, Charlotte Juul Nilsson, Margit Kriegbaum, and Naja Hulvej Rod, all of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

They added that their findings were in line with other studies that found that men respond to stress with higher levels of cortisol, which may louse up their health. Only demanding spouses and children seemed to have this life-threatening effect on people. Annoying neighbors and in-laws, not so much.

Frequent arguments also led to a greater likelihood of dropping early from the mortal coil, but the data suggested that conflict was an equal opportunity grim reaper: both men and women were affected the same and it didn’t much matter who the arguments were with.

Because those who were both unemployed and involved in the most arguments had the highest risk of premature death, the researchers acknowledged that some of these effects could be attributed to differential vulnerability, that is, that people with fewer resources are less able to deal with stresses than more wealthy people can.

They recommend that social services providers teach skills in handling worries and demands as well as conflict management within couples and families.

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