For almost an hour, in the counsellor’s room, I ranted and raved, accused and self-justified. I also cried a lot.
By contrast, my then husband didn’t shed a tear, but held himself stiffly, his head and neck rigid as he delivered his devastating blows to our relationship coldly, almost robotically.
That we were both in pain would have been very clear to the therapist. It was only our third session, but it was also our last, as my partner of 23 years was shortly heading off on a sabbatical — a spiritual quest to South and Central America ‘to find himself’.
I think we both realised our marriage was truly over, but as we walked silently together towards the station, each locked in thought, a sudden wave of relief flooded over me.
It was going to continue to hurt, I knew that, but with this rock-bottom moment had come the realisation that from now on the agonies of the past two years, when our marriage had first begun to unravel, would slowly start to diminish. It would never feel that bad again. This episode came back to me when I read a new scientific report this month, emphatically stating that living with a partner was linked to healthier blood sugar levels.
LINDA KELSEY: ‘Not only have I lived and suffered through a bad marriage as it came to an end, but as you get older, you see it time and again in friends, too’
‘Here’s what I went through in the run-up to our separation. Insomnia. Panic attacks. Anxiety that affected my balance and breathing. Tension headaches. Hair loss. Flaky skin’
Based on a study of 3,335 adults in England aged from 50 to 85, the research built on many previous reports that have also identified health benefits from cohabitation, including a diminished risk of stroke and depression.
On the other hand, a change in a relationship status, such as a divorce, led to damaging increases in blood sugar levels, which in turn can lead to diabetes and heart disease, said the study’s authors, from the universities of Ottawa and Luxembourg.
So far, so interesting. And yet this study then said something very surprising — that the health advantages existed no matter whether the relationship was happy or not. This mystifies me, for surely a bad marriage is hugely damaging to your health on every level.
Not only have I lived and suffered through one as it came to an end, but as you get older, you see it time and again in friends, too.
Here’s what I went through in the run-up to our separation. Insomnia. Panic attacks. Anxiety that affected my balance and breathing. Tension headaches. Hair loss. Flaky skin.
Oh yes, and weight loss, too, because unlike some who eat for comfort and gain pounds — undoubtedly adding to their diabetes risk, no matter what the researchers say — when I’m distressed I lose my appetite. Since I am slim to start with, this is not something I welcome.
My partner didn’t share all his symptoms with me — we were beyond the sharing stage — but I did witness his tossing and turning at night as I lay awake staring at the ceiling. And I noted his constantly furrowed brow and a previously non-existent paunch, fuelled by guzzling whole packets of Haribo sweets at a time. Again, this won’t have helped lower his chances of getting diabetes.
During this time, he also developed tinnitus, which various studies have linked to stress.
‘If divorce can be damaging, staying can take a terrible toll. I look around at people I know and see it in some of their relationships — and their health problems, too’
The truth is, perhaps the most significant way in which marriage is good for health is because it prevents you from being lonely, and we’ve proved beyond doubt that loneliness is harmful.
It leads to higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, to obesity, heart problems and cognitive decline. Some scientists say it’s as bad for you as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day.
But here’s the rub. Anyone who has lived in a bad marriage will know there is nowhere lonelier.
For 18 months before we parted, my husband and I continued to share the same bed, without intimacy, and the same home office, with hours passing by in complete silence.
My sense of loneliness was way more acute than after he’d packed his bags and gone away.
If divorce can be damaging, staying can take a terrible toll. I look around at people I know and see it in some of their relationships — and their health problems, too.
One acquaintance, Dawn, says she hasn’t loved her husband for the 40-plus years they’ve been married. She has no plans to leave him, yet when I ask her to describe to me the effects of her marriage on her health, there’s no stopping her.
‘Well, there’s IBS — that literally started on the honeymoon; the breast cancer, which came much later and the high blood pressure. And the never-ending depression.
‘It may not be very scientific to blame my marriage, but there’s no history of any of these in my family.’
‘For many people, especially women, being in a bad marriage is undoubtedly bad for your health’
Dawn says she mostly blames herself. ‘I knew before we walked down the aisle that Robert was probably a bad choice,’ she says. ‘But he was what I wanted: he was a successful businessman, cocky and confident.
‘He was tall and broad-shouldered and even his physical presence seemed to represent security. All the things I craved after witnessing my own parents’ divorce as a young girl, and seeing my mum drift in and out of relationships and never settling.’
The problems started almost immediately after the wedding, Dawn admits. ‘These days,’ she continues, ‘I suppose it would be called coercive control. The little criticisms began on our honeymoon.
‘ “You look nice,” he’d say, as I dressed for a day of sightseeing in Venice, “but I’m not sure about the colour red on you.”
‘Cooking him thousands of meals over the years, he’d point to the one thing that wasn’t right, like “courgettes are a bit overcooked” rather than praising the rest of the meal.
‘And when we were out with friends, he’d interrupt and say: “Now, Dawn, you can’t possibly mean that.” ’
Over the years, Dawn continued to play her part as a contented mother, but it came at a huge cost. ‘Shortly after the birth of my second child I found I couldn’t stop crying,’ she says. ‘I went to the doctor and he put me on antidepressants, and I’ve been on them ever since.
‘I tried to pretend life was OK. Our houses were growing in size and status, which I can’t say I minded, and my kids were my world.’
Robert wasn’t around much, as he was often abroad on business. ‘I suspect he had affairs,’ Dawn adds, ‘but when I thought about him with other women, I didn’t feel anything much and I never confronted him.
The implication of the diabetes research — that somehow it might be healthier to stay in a bad relationship than leave — is surely absurd and is contradicted by other research, too
‘When he was around, he’d criticise my “sloppy” parenting skills in front of the children and lambast them as well. But I still thought it was better for them to have a full-time father than for us to separate.’
After the children had left home, Dawn tried yet again to pluck up the courage to leave the marriage. However, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was successfully treated, and stayed.
‘I’m a coward, for liking my creature comforts and my lovely home — my safe harbour — and for being terrified that no one else would want me,’ she says.
‘I look in the mirror and despite the Botox and the fillers, which I’ve had plenty of, I see a raddled old woman, bitter to the core.’
This is not at all how I see Dawn. She has never been less than kind, yet she is full of painful regrets and a sense of hopelessness.
‘Now Robert is retired and it’s agony. Without the antidepressants, I don’t know what I’d do. We have nothing in common, nothing to talk about except the kids.’
She adds: ‘In an odd way, he’s rather less critical now, but he’s still controlling. Since retirement he wants to know where I am all the time. If I go out with a girlfriend, when will I be home? If I go shopping, what am I going to get?
‘He’s becoming forgetful. I’m terrified he’s got the beginnings of dementia. It sounds awful but I don’t want to have to look after him — the thought horrifies me.’
Dawn is determined that it’s all her fault for not getting out sooner, so she keeps taking the pills, has next to no energy and is aware that time is running out.
‘My blood pressure is through the roof,’ she says, ‘and I continue to live with a man who doesn’t know I’ve been living a lie for 40 years.’
‘The truth is, perhaps the most significant way in which marriage is good for health is because it prevents you from being lonely, and we’ve proved beyond doubt that loneliness is harmful’
One of the advantages of marriage, some studies claim, is that a ‘nagging’ other half encourages healthier habits. But here a bad marriage can also be worse than none at all.
In a public health briefing, the Tavistock centre for couple relationships cited two studies which found that women tend to drink more than men in response to relationship difficulties and low levels of intimacy.
Another study which tracked couples over nine years, found that husbands rather than wives tend to drink more in response to marital discord. Either way, the conclusion is that marital problems lead to more, and more damaging, alcohol use.
In researching this piece, I spoke to a woman called Alice, 52. For the mother of four, the physical and mental toll of one of the most significant relationships in her life has been huge, including a weight gain of 5 st.
An early relationship led to the birth of her first child, but it was the disintegration of her later marriage to ‘vivacious, charismatic, spontaneous Simon’, whom she met in her late 20s, that took the heavier toll.
‘From the start, he had a lot of attention from other females,’ Alice says. ‘I loved the family aspect, being a wife, a mum, but he had so many affairs. I had women turning up at the door and writing me letters to let me know they were having an affair with my husband.
‘Perhaps they thought I’d leave him if they told me.’
Every time Alice confronted Simon, he’d defend himself, or say nothing. ‘The rejection was awful,’ she explains. ‘It happened again and again. He was happy to have his affairs and stay with me.
‘I put on masses of weight — close to 5 st. I was only in my 30s and I ended up in a lot of pain and having to have my gall bladder removed, which was linked to the weight gain. It’s surprising I didn’t get diabetes. I had this overall feeling of not being healthy and, at the same time, trapped.
‘I expected to be loved, cherished and respected. I was hiding my anguish, and I lost a lot of friendships because I didn’t reach out.
‘The humiliation was horrendous. Whenever I tried to end it, he’d beg forgiveness and I wanted to make it work. But if I didn’t end it, I felt I’d lose my mind.’
When the relationship was finally over, Simon moved out and then stopped paying the mortgage. For a time, Alice and her children had to live in a hostel.
But her fierce determination, the support of her mum and her sister, and, eventually, managing to become friends with her former husband, gave her the courage to forge a new life for herself.
The implication of the diabetes research — that somehow it might be healthier to stay in a bad relationship than leave — is surely absurd and is contradicted by other research, too.
People who live on their own, and in particular men, I would suggest, tend to fall apart healthwise if there’s no one to chivvy them into getting checks. Post-divorce they may well be leading the kind of less healthy lives that make them susceptible to diabetes. But for many people, especially women, being in a bad marriage is undoubtedly bad for your health.
‘I had felt overwhelmed and so tired,’ says Alice. ‘But I also recognised that an unhealthy relationship will make you unhealthy.
‘I had not looked after myself physically, but after becoming single I finally became excited about taking good care of myself.’
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-11777693/As-researchers-hail-relationships-LINDA-KELSEY-reveals-terrible-toll-unhappy-marriage.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 As researchers hail relationships, LINDA KELSEY reveals the terrible toll of an unhappy marriage