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Posts Tagged ‘Marriage’

For Better or Worse, Relationships Have Enormous Effects on Health

March 1st, 2014 at 8:05 am by timigustafson

Loving relationships can produce countless benefits in terms of both mental and physical well-being. Unfortunately, a successful marriage or partnership is not easy to come by – and when it happens, there is no guarantee it will last. Nearly half of all marriages in America end in divorce, often with devastating consequences for everyone involved. The ramifications are not easily measured and often manifest themselves long afterwards. Even people who seem able to recover can suffer long-term damages, including to their physical health.

Losing a partner through divorce or death is one of the most extreme forms of stress anyone can go through, according to Dr. Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago who has conducted several studies on health issues in connection with marriage and divorce.

“People who lose a marriage take such damage to their health,” she said in an interview on the subject with CNN. “It’s financially, sometimes, ruinous. It’s socially extremely difficult. What’s interesting is if people have done this and remarried, we still see, in their health, the scars or marks, the damage that was done by this event.”

Depression is a common response to the loss of a spouse or partner. So is sleeplessness. Dr. Waite also found that divorced and widowed people tend to suffer in greater numbers from chronic diseases and are overall of poorer health compared to others who have not had the experience, regardless of other factors like age, race, gender, and education.

Even people who haven’t ended a relationship but feel ambivalent about their partner seem to have their health affected. A recently published study conducted at the University of Utah found that couples who were unsure about their marriage had on average a higher risk of developing heart disease than their happily married counterparts.

Widowhood, especially at an advanced age, can have even greater implication. According to a study from England, the risk of a heart attack is the highest in the first month after bereavement. The high level of stress caused by the loss of a loved one can result in a depressed immune system, which may add to or aggravate existing health conditions.

The fact is that losing someone who was close to you, whom you shared your life with, and who is now gone is an ongoing stress event. It never really goes away because it is, or at least once was, part of a person’s identity. There is a deep void to be filled, and that effort takes time and may never be completed. It can lead to chronic stress with multiple negative side effects, some of which may not easily be identified.

As at all times of heightened stress, it is particularly important in these situations to pay attention to one’s health needs and be proactive by taking some extra health-promoting measures. Eating nutritious food is one of those and so is daily exercise. Divorce or bereavement counseling is highly recommended.

Especially when people are at their most vulnerable, they can find it hard to reach out to others and ask for support. Offering a helping hand or just being present in a loving, nonintrusive way can prevent a grieving person from falling into isolation, which is the worst that can happen. Recovery from great loss depends not only on what’s happening on the inside but also on someone’s chances to rejoin the world of the living.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (


Can Marital Bliss Make Us Healthier? (Emphasis on Bliss)

December 5th, 2012 at 12:36 pm by timigustafson

Do married people live longer, healthier lives than their single counterparts? This is not an issue that came up only recently, e.g. in connection with the increasing acceptance and legalization of same sex marriage or statistics that show unmarried people outnumbering married ones for the first time in America’s history. In fact, as far back as in the mid 1800s, scientists have investigated the potential benefits of marriage, not only in terms of economics and social status but specifically for health.

A British epidemiologist named William Farr was one of the first to study what he called “conjugal condition,” by which he meant the impact of marital status on people’s health. He found that married couples had on average longer life expectancies than the unmarried or the widowed. His findings, although now outdated in methodology and scope, still hold and have been confirmed by multiple studies on the subject that is known as the “marriage advantage”.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to credit marriage itself as the sole source of such benefits. Back in William Farr’s days, as today, it is tempting to exaggerate the importance of the institution while underestimating the difference that quality and character of a marriage makes, says Tara Parker-Pope, a health writer for the New York Times/Well blog. “The mere fact of being married, it seems, isn’t enough to protect your health,” she says.

In fact, clinical studies have found that being in stressful relationships or marriages can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease. In other words, you can actually die of a broken heart, quite literally.

Marital distress can be a chronic stressor, concluded one study that focused on couples facing problems early on in their marriages. Among other effects, some spouses showed “poorer immunological responses,” meaning their immune system weakened, leaving them less protected against any number of diseases.

And it doesn’t have to come to open conflict to diminish the advantages that may or may not come after tying the knot. No matter how happy and excited couples are at the outset, wedded bliss has a limited shelf life, writes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, in a recent op-ed article on the issue in the New York Times. “New love seems nearly as vulnerable […] as a new job, a new home, a new coat and other novel sources of pleasure and well-being,” she says. “The special joy wears off and [newlyweds] are back where they started, at least in terms of happiness.”

So, is there any chance for lasting marital bliss with all its promises? There can be, according to Dr. Lyubomirsky, if couples stick it out and get over the hurdles that inevitable come when reality sets in. What sometimes happens is that spouses rediscover each other once the kids are grown and out of the house. So-called empty-nesters have a chance to fall in love all over again, but this time on more solid ground and with fewer expectations. That can be healthier and still enhance their overall well-being.

Of course, there are no specific rules how to keep the proverbial fires going or rekindle them if necessary. What often goes missing as marriages endure is an element of surprise and variety, says Dr. Lyubomirsky. Eventually routines dominate our lifestyles and we settle for the status quo. We know who we are and think we know all there is to know about our partners. While familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, it certainly can foster a growing degree of indifference.

This is where couples can and should become creative and engage in activities both partners enjoy to bring back a bit of excitement into their lives. The curiosity and keen interest in each other they once had when love was young does not have to be lost. On the contrary. Some say, those who play together, stay together. So, let’s explore…

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Both Marriage and Divorce Can Cause Weight Gain

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Hollywood has decided to invest once more in a movie specifically aimed at baby boomers. After the considerable successes of “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), “The Bucket List” (2007), and this year’s long-running box office hit, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Hope Springs,” now in theaters, addresses another topic that is very much of concern for this aging generation: How does one maintain a decades-old marriage, including a decent sex life, when mutual attraction can no longer be taken for granted?

For those who haven’t seen the movie (yet), here’s a brief synopsis: Like many empty-nesters, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have settled into a comfortable but mind-numbing, soul-destroying routine. He goes to work every morning as an accountant, albeit with retirement plans not far off. She takes care of the house and earns a little extra money from a part-time job in a clothing store. While he’s resigned to the status quo, she wants more, in fact, she wants a different life that includes a loving relationship and – if it’s not too much to ask – a little action in the bedroom. Seeking the help of a marriage counselor seems the only way to salvage whatever is left of their former bliss.

Obviously, the film’s message stands in stark contrast to the “Fifty Shades” book series by E. L. James, often dubbed as ‘mommy porn,’ where women of all ages can find inspiration for their erotic endeavors in and outside of marriage. By comparison, “Hope Springs” is almost a turnoff, considering the long-term prospects.

In any case, talking (let alone making a film) about intimacy between older people has never been easy in our youth-oriented culture. This may be changing now in response to demographic shifts. But timeliness alone will not guarantee that a truly meaningful conversation can take place.

The way we deal with the subject of sex at the later stages in life is almost exclusively focused on issues like erectile dysfunction and other unfortunate effects of the natural aging process. Performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra and Cialis may sell better than almost any other pharmaceutical product on the planet, but in terms of treatment they offer a purely mechanical solution: As long as the plumbing keeps working, everything’s supposed to be fine. What they can’t do is to help preserve a satisfying relationship with a partner who has seemingly been around forever and offers little hope for many more surprises. Even if the desired effect kicks in every time, the ability to perform in bed is not the same as making love.

Like many couples whose marriage has come to a crossroad, Kay and Arnold take stock of all their unmet needs and expectations. Being sexually unfulfilled, although initially high on the list of their mutual misgivings, turns out only to be a symptom of a far deeper disconnect. Soon they have to realize that the deterioration of their relationship is not caused by a poor sex life, but rather the other way around. There is no love to express because there is no love to be had. Instead, an empty space is widening between them – symbolized by separate schedules, separate interests, separate bedrooms – and by the time they can no longer ignore it, they are unable to bridge it.

It is a strength of the movie to show how a ‘Me First’ attitude, common among but not limited to baby boomers, leaves us terribly unequipped to deal with these kinds of problems. Bookstores and websites overflow with professional guidance and self-help materials, but divorce rates remain high and more people are now single than married. The filmmakers were too smart to try giving any definite answers themselves. One thing, however, becomes clear: Love is still a matter of giving over taking, creation over expectation, dialogue over demand. In a way, we are warned not to expect too much and yet make the most of what we have. Not bad advice from a simple boomer flick.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The Secret of Healthy Aging.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Marital Bliss Can Promote a Healthy Lifestyle

June 17th, 2012 at 12:11 pm by timigustafson

Couples who eat and exercise together have a better chance to manage their weight and stay fit, according to a study from the University of Michigan School of Public Health. What matters most is good communication and a shared commitment to a health-promoting lifestyle.

When both partners take responsibility for their own as well as each other’s well-being, they have a much better chance to succeed in their efforts. If those goals are only pursued by one of the partners, it can be a frustrating experience.

Married men, more than women, tend to make lifestyle changes “to keep the peace” rather than out of conviction, according to Dr. Derek Griffith, one of the authors of the study report. If men don’t like their wives’ food choices, they often make up for the deprivation when they are away from home, sometimes in form of binge eating. “The key to married men adopting a healthier diet is for couples to discuss and negotiate the new, healthier menu changes as a team,” he said.

Typically, both men and women tend to gain a small amount of weight after getting married. 10 to 15 percent of additional body weight is not unusual during the first two years of married life. “When you have these kinds of big life changes, your weight can go up,” said Dr. Dmitry Tumin, a sociologist at Ohio State University, who conducted an extensive study on the subject. He found that on average married women are 46 percent more likely to gain weight than women who remain single. Men are also more prone to weight gain after marriage but even more so after divorce. After the age of 30, the risk of weight gain is considerably greater for men than for women when they undergo changes in marital status. “As you get older, having a sudden change in your life like marriage or divorce is a bigger shock than it would have been when you were younger,” said Dr. Tumin.

The takeaway from these studies is that couples have a tremendous influence on each other’s health – for better or worse. It is not just a matter of who does the food shopping and home cooking but even what kind of furniture is chosen, how big the TV is and where it’s located, whether there’s room for fitness equipment in the house, etc, etc. One study found that even the size of the living room couch has a direct impact on its owners’ eating habits. The more comfortable people get, stretching out on the sofa or La-Z-Boy, the more snacks and junk food they’re likely to consume.

“Watching TV and snacking on junk food have become ‘complimentary behaviors’ for many people,” said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. While watching TV, people don’t get any exercise, they see tons of food advertisements, which stimulates their appetite, and because they are distracted, they quickly lose control over their food intake. “It’s a perfect storm of unhealthy behavior,” he said.

The good news is that couples can encourage each other to make positive changes and lend support when sticking to a health regimen gets tough. Both partners should also be patient and forgiving when some of the inevitable lapses occur.

Instead of trying to “revolutionize” their entire lives, people should take on one or two manageable changes at a time. For instance, instead of tossing out a spouse’s less-than-healthy but beloved stash of snack foods and replacing it with green vegetables, it can be more helpful to add a few more nutritious items here and there and allow for a phase-out period for the rest.

The same goes for exercising. It makes no sense to start out with a bang when one or both partners haven’t been physically active for a while. If one is in worse shape than the other, consideration and patience are most important. Mutual encouragement and shared successes over time will lead to better results.

Last but not least, it is extremely important to acknowledge and applaud each other’s progress. Being seen by one’s partner as attractive and desirable is a crucial element of marriage that never changes. If wanting to look great in sexy lingerie or to make her melt in your strong arms is all the motivation you need, then that’s the way to go.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Both Marriage and Divorce Can Cause Weight Gain

August 25th, 2011 at 12:18 pm by timigustafson

After marriage, both men and women tend to gain some weight, but men tend to gain even more after divorce, according to a study that followed over 10,000 people to better understand the impact of people’s marital status on their health.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – a biannual survey of men and women from 1986 to 2008 – researchers tracked the body mass index (BMI) of folks who were never married, were married or were divorced. The results showed that within two years of marriage most couple’s BMI values increased. But divorce also turned out to be a significant marker.

“After marriage, women will take care of their families and maybe eat the way their husband does or their children do,” said Dr. Zhenchao Qian, a sociology professor at Ohio State University and one of the lead authors of the study. The change in routine that comes with married life can trigger weight gain, at first more so for women than for men. “Men tend to be healthier after marriage in terms of diet,” said Dr. Qian.

With regards to their overall health, men clearly benefit from marriage. Married men are more likely to go for routine medical checkups and take better care of their health needs than bachelors. After divorce, however, things can quickly turn for the worse.

“Joy and grief are strong emotions that can lead to an increase or decrease in appetite,” said Susan Heitler, a marriage counselor and writer for “Newlyweds often gain small amounts of weight because they’re content. But in people who are newly divorced, depression can cause substantial weight gain,” she said.

Of course, there are other factors besides change of marital status that must be considered. Pregnancy, parenting, career changes, financial problems, aging and widowhood all leave their own mark on people’s health and wellbeing.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to get easier with age. On the contrary. People who get married and/or divorced while they are still young seem to be less affected by weight gain in response to their experiences. “Both marriages and divorces increase the risk of weight changes from about age 30 to 50, and the effect is stronger at later ages,” said Dmitry Tumin, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study. “As you get older, having a sudden change in your life like a marriage or a divorce is a bigger shock than it would have been when you were younger, and that can really impact your weight,” he added.

Weight gain affects relationships
Weight problems do not only affect people’s physical health but also their relationships. In a different study conducted at Cornell University, researchers found that physical appearance plays an especially significant role at the dating stage but also throughout marriage. According to the study, young normal-weight women are more willing to date overweight men than the other way around. Once married, overweight wives seem to be happier in their marriages than many normal-weight ones. Still, females tend to be more concerned about weight issues than males, regardless of marital status. At any age, men seem less tolerant of overweight partners and less comfortable in dating overweight people than women.

“While the population of this country – and the world for that matter – is getting fatter, ideals about body weight increasingly emphasize slimness. Society tends to reject obese individuals and subjects them to severe stigmatization and discrimination,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sobal, a nutritional sociologist at Cornell University who studies the sociology of obesity and one of the authors of the study, which was subsequently published in a book titled “Overweight and Weight Management” (ASPEN 1997).

While the study found that body weight was not associated with most aspects of marital quality, several connections were identified as significant. For instance, men who gained weight while they were married reported more marital problems than men who kept their weight down. By contrast, married women did not seem to be as affected by their weight changes.

“One theory about why obese women are happier with their marriages is related to recognizing their decreased value in the marriage market in a society that stigmatizes obesity. As a result, obese women are more likely to be satisfied with their current marital condition compared with opportunities for seeking a new partner. In other words, women appear to internalize and accept the negative assessments of their obesity [better than men],” the study concludes.

Weight gain and sex
While many women are concerned about losing their man because of weight issues, some also use sex to pressure their partners into weight loss. “Women often withhold sex as a weapon of last resort when their partners refuse to or don’t lose weight,” said Dr. Laura Triplett, a professor at California State University in Fullerton who conducts research on body image and social implications of physical appearance. She found that especially women in their 20s stop having sex with partners who don’t meet their expectations of what a man should look like.

It’s not just a matter of vanity or loss of respect when Mr. Right turns wrong because his waistline expands. “When men gain weight and become physically unattractive to their partner, what usually happens is the woman takes it much more as a sign that he doesn’t love her. Women tend to personalize things, said Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist specializing in intimacy and sexuality at the Methodist Weight Management Center in Houston, TX. “At one point, women feel like their partners don’t care,” she said.

Women are not all that different from men when it comes to aesthetics, according to Veronica Monet, a sexologist who does research in relationship dynamics. “It’s great that women are realizing that we are also visual creatures and that we are sexually stimulated by what we see and that we have the right to ask our partners to gift us with the benefit of good grooming and regular visits to the gym. But any time we threaten our partners with withholding sex or love, whether we are male or female, we take the relationship in a negative direction.”

Instead, she suggests, couple should share their feelings and talk frankly about weight problems with one another. “It’s extremely important to avoid negative statements, name-calling or accusations,” Monet said. “Ultimately, you have to realize that your overweight partner is only going to lose weight when he [or she] wants to.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter at

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit

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