Preliminary findings from a study of 9,000 adults, aged 59 to 60, who have been followed since they were at school in 1957, shows those who argued more frequently or who are criticised by their spouse are twice as likely to suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
They are also more prone to illness and disease and are more likely to have had a serious illness by the time they reach 60.
Previous research showed that marriage has a good effect on health, and it has been widely believed this is because married people look after themselves better. But research presented at the American Psychological Society annual conference showed it is not marriage but love that keeps you healthy.
"There is an accumulative effect of emotional wear and tear of difficult relationships throughout a person's life that leads them to suffer more health problems and chronic illnesses by the time they get to 60," said Dr Carol Ryff, a social psychologist from the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
In the study, participants who were married were asked about their relationship with one parent and their partner in adult life. Questions included how often their spouse criticised them, how often they argued as well as how much they were understood and could talk to their partner. Those who had at least one caring parent and had a good romantic relationship, intellectually, socially, emotionally and sexually were put in one group. Those who did not have a caring parent or who had a poor relationship in adult life were put in a separate group.
People who had "poor" relationships were much more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease and nervous disorders, 55 per cent compared with 21 per cent in the "good" relationship group. They also had a weaker immune system, which left them more susceptible to disease. Among those with a good relationship, the higher the level of intimacy the better their health.
"The marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy is a classic example of how a difficult and argumentative marriage is bad for your health," said Dr Ryff.
The Tolstoys were married for 48 years and had 10 children who survived to adulthood. The state of their marriage is known by the diaries they kept. Both suffered serious ill health and frequent bouts of depression. Sonya Tolstoy wrote in her diary on 8 October, 1862, shortly after their marriage. "Since yesterday when he told me he did not trust my love, I have been feeling truly terrible. He loves to torment me and see me weep - what is he doing to me? Little by little I shall withdraw completely from him and poison his life."
After the birth of their first son, Sergei, in 1863, Leo Tolstoy wrote: "Her character gets worse, with her grumbling and spiteful taunts, her unfairness and quiet egotism frighten and torment me."
But the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett to Robert Browning restored her health. At 39 she was an invalid spinster poet who rarely left the house. After writing to Mr Browning, a year later she walked out of her father's house, married and went to live in Italy. She gave birth to a healthy son when she was 43.
She wrote of her devotion to the man who restored her health and life: "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height of my soul."Reuse content