Tara Parker-Pope has an article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine about the relationship between healthy marriages and physical wellness. The most compelling thing about the piece is that it showed how deeply we internalize gender expectations. A University of Utah psychology professor studied 150 couples, who had been married on average for 36 years, and found that the “’emotional tone’ of [their] conflict affects heart risk.” Here’s a translation from Parker-Pope:
The women in his study who were at highest risk for signs of heart disease were those whose marital battles lacked any signs of warmth, not even a stray term of endearment during a hostile discussion (” Honey , you’re driving me crazy!”) or a minor pat on the back or squeeze of the hand, all of which can signal affection in the midst of anger…For men, on the other hand, hostile and negative marital battles seemed to have no effect on heart risk. Men were at risk for a higher coronary calcium score, however, when their marital spats turned into battles for control . It didn’t matter whether it was the husband or wife who was trying to gain control of the matter; it was merely any appearance of controlling language that put men on the path of heart disease.
To summarize, women’s health was affected negatively when they did not display warmth-something expected from women; men’s was affected when they did not control the situation-something expected from men. These couples are in their 60s, so they were raised in a less progressive environment than today’s twenty- and thirtysomethings. Still, it’s fascinating that these expectations seem to be so influential.