Is Staying in a Bad Marriage Slowly Killing You?

Are You Ready for Divorce?

TAKE THIS QUIZ and Find Out. 

Minute Read

Man contemplating divorce looking out the window with sad reflection.

Staying in a bad marriage can be hell for a lot of reasons.

You’re not happy. You feel like you always have to walk on eggshells. Your life is not where you want it to be, and you can’t help but wonder, “Is this all there is?!”

You feel like you’re living a lie.

On some level, you’re probably embarrassed that you let things go for so long. At the same time, the thought of getting a divorce ties your stomach in knots.

You don’t want to live like you’re living. But, you’re not sure you’re ready to turn your whole life upside down.

You’re afraid of hurting your kids.  You’re worried about your finances and you don’t want to pay thousands of dollars (or tens of thousands of dollars!) to divorce lawyers.

Most of all, you don’t want to make a mistake.

So, you do nothing. You wait for “a better time.”

The truth is: You’re stuck.

While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that living in limbo can suck the life out of you, most people don’t realize just how true that statement can be.

Science has shown that staying in a bad marriage can (quite literally) kill you.

Picture of a head made from gears with a few coming off: Science of the Brain

The Science of Relationships

Everyone knows that staying in an unhappy marriage is stressful. But you might be surprised by how much being in a bad marriage affects your health and well-being.

Researchers have found that people in unhappy marriages are at higher risk for depression, high blood pressure and heart disease. They also don’t heal as well after an injury or illness.

What’s more, if you are unhappily married, it’s not just your physical health that suffers. Unhappily married people also suffer from lower self-esteem and higher psychological distress than their happily married counterparts.

For those whose marriages are not simply unhappy, but rise to the level of being considered “toxic,” the negative physical and mental effects of their bad marriage are even more pronounced.

A Michigan State University study showed that there is a 34% increase in the rate of heart problems for those involved in toxic relationships. Another study showed that those who live in constant conflict are likely to die 11 years sooner than those who experience less conflict.

In short, staying in an unhappy marriage can be as unhealthy as smoking or drinking.

And it’s not just your physical health that takes a hit. As Gottman Institute certified couples’ therapist Carrie Cole states, “Staying in a seriously unhappy marriage can have long-term effects on our mental and emotional health.

Here are 10 ways that staying in a bad marriage can negatively affect your health.

10 Negative Health Effects of Being in a 

Bad Marriage

1. Increased Risk of Depression, Anxiety and Anger

It’s not surprising that being stuck in a bad marriage can hurt your mental health.

When you feel like you’re stuck in any situation you don’t want to be in, and you can’t see a way out, you get depressed. You feel hopeless.  Nothing makes sense anymore.

When your spouse constantly belittles you, your self-esteem takes a huge hit. You start feeling like a loser, like you can’t do anything right. You start to believe that every bad thing that’s happening is your fault.

Pretty woman holding her head in pain from the stress of a bad marriage.

Having to walk on eggshells all the time contributes to anxiety. You feel unsure of yourself. You don’t feel safe – even in your own home.

In short, being in a bad marriage can wreak havoc in your emotional and psychological life.

2. Increased Risk of Heart Disease

Staying in a bad marriage can literally break your heart.

Researchers have found that the impact of stress (including marital stress) on the body equals the negative effects of other risk factors, like physical inactivity and smoking. It also increases high blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity (see below). All of those conditions increase your risk of heart disease.

Women and older couples, in particular, seem to be more susceptible to increased rates of heart disease caused by marital stress. A report in the Journal of Health Psychology found that women in unsatisfying marriages seemed to be targets for heart disease.

3. Increased Risk of High Blood Pressure

It’s common knowledge that stress can raise your blood pressure.

When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones that make your heart beat faster and cause your blood vessels to narrow. Both of those actions increase your blood pressure.

Since arguing with your spouse is stressful, and stress raises your blood pressure, it’s not surprising that when you and your spouse are locked in battle, it can feel like your head is going to explode!

As if that’s not bad enough, when arguing becomes a way of life, rather than an occasional occurrence, your body is forced to live in a constant state of tension and stress. The result is not only that your blood pressure stays elevated all the time.

Elevated blood pressure equals an increased risk of heart disease. It also causes kidney problems, eye problems, aneurysms, metabolic syndrome, and a whole host of other physical problems you’d rather not have.

Exhuasted man in bed with his eyes open - can't sleep!

4. Disturbed Sleeping Patterns

Arguing with your spouse (or just being downright miserable!) can also disrupt your sleep. It’s hard to fall asleep when you’re angry, upset, or just spinning in your head.

To get a good night’s sleep, you need to be able to relax. Yet, often when you’re in a bad marriage, relaxing (and sleeping) become difficult.

So you wake up in the morning already exhausted. Slogging through your day in that condition puts even more stress on your body, which, in turn, can contribute to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.

According to the National Library of Medicine, the consequences of sleep deprivation include increased stress responsivity, somatic pain, reduced quality of life, emotional distress and mood disorders, and cognitive, memory, and performance deficits.

It’s a vicious, negative circle.

5. Increased Risk of Diabetes

While stress alone doesn’t cause diabetes, stress does raise blood sugar levels. Chronic stress not only increases blood sugar levels, but it raises the level of the stress hormones in your system.

Researchers have hypothesized that high levels of stress hormones might also stop insulin-producing cells in the pancreas from working properly, thereby reducing the amount of insulin they make.

All of this causes the body, over time, to become insulin-resistant. That insulin resistance, in turn, leads you to develop Type II diabetes.

Type II diabetes can lead to heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, foot problems, vision loss, kidney problems, sexual dysfunction and more.

6. Higher Cholesterol

The increase in blood sugar that stress causes has another negative effect, besides increasing your insulin-resistance. Increased blood sugar causes your body to produce more triglycerides. Higher triglycerides cause higher cholesterol.

And it’s not just any cholesterol that’s affected by stress.

Studies have shown that increased stress causes an increase in the “bad” cholesterol in your body.

High cholesterol, in turn, can cause you to develop fatty deposits in your blood vessels. As those fatty deposit grow they make it difficult for blood to flow.  What’s more, if those fatty deposits break off in your arteries or veins, they can flow to your heart or brain, increasing your risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke.

7. Increased Rate of Obesity

Yes, a bad marriage can actually make you fat!

Stress affects your body fat in two ways. First, chronic stress can increase your cravings for comfort food, which tends to be food that’s high in fat and sugar. That kind of food, in turn, tends to make you fat.

Secondly, stress affects the places your body stores fat.

Stress, and the high cortisol levels that go with it, causes the body to redistribute white adipose tissue (i.e. fat) to your belly Excess belly fat can be dangerous because it surrounds your internal organs. That puts you at an increased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and liver problems, among other conditions.

Fat business man working at a laptop while gorging on a hamburger and fries

Finally, studies have shown that chronic stress affects the way that your body metabolizes high fat foods.

When you add to that the fact that you tend to eat more when you are upset or depressed, it’s not hard to see how those who are unhappily married can easily pack on a lot of extra pounds.

8. Slower Rate of Healing

Psychological stress can negatively affect the way the body heals. Elevated levels of stress hormones (like cortisol) affects the body’s ability to produce cytokines, which are important in the early stages of healing.

Stress also lowers immune system functioning. (See below.) Lowered immune system functioning means the body is less able to fight off toxins and manage inflammation. That in turn lowers the body’s ability to heal.

In fact, studies have shown that couples who are stressed and upset don’t heal as quickly as others.

If you have recently had surgery, or suffered an injury, your healing process will likely take longer if you’re in an unhealthy marriage than it would if you were in a loving one.

9. Decreased Immune System Functioning

Not only does increased stress affect your body’s ability to heal, but it also affects the frequency with which you get sick. That’s because stress reduces the number of natural killers (or lymphocytes) in your body.

While short-term stress can actually protect the body, long term stress can tear it down. Long term stress (… like the kind of stress you suffer when you’re in a bad marriage for months or years!) induces long-term chronic inflammation. That, in turn, can increase your likelihood of getting everything from the common cold to cancer.

The bottom line is that, when you’re in a bad marriage, your body is more vulnerable to illness and infections. It also takes longer to heal from any illness or injury you get.

10. Increased Participation in Bad Health Habits

Close up of a whiskey glass with a man with his head in his hands the background. Using alcohol to numb out.

Stress does not tend to increase your participation in healthy living habits.

When you’re stressed out from your marriage, the temptation to soothe yourself with food, booze, drugs, or other things that aren’t good for you, can be overwhelming. You want to feel better, so you try to numb your pain.

According to a national survey, when they’re stressed, Americans tend to make poor diet choices, eat more comfort food, drink more alcohol, exercise less, and smoke.

While all of those behaviors may help you cope with your life in the short term, they all have serious negative health implications in the long term.

What’s more if you indulge in these kinds of unhealthy behaviors too much, you end up with both a bad marriage and an unhealthy addiction to boot.

The word "Health" going down into the ocean in the sunset signifying declining health

Deciding Whether to Divorce

Deciding whether you should stay in a bad marriage, or get a divorce isn’t easy. A lot of different factors go into making that decision. Yet, unless you’re chronically ill already, “your health”  is often a factor that gets overlooked.

Yet preserving your health is as important as protecting your kids and securing your finances.

Once you’re sick, you realize the value of good health. And, just as it’s hard to pull yourself out of a financial hole after your divorce, it can be equally hard to regain your health once you’re chronically ill.

Because of that, it makes sense to consider your own health – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – when you’re thinking about divorce. While it may sound cliché, science has proven over and over again that being unhappily married can (literally) make you sick.

Of course, improving your marriage can probably turn your health around as much as getting a divorce would.

But doing nothing – enduring life in a bad marriage simply because you aren’t sure you should get a divorce – can be deadly.

Karen Covy

Karen Covy is a Divorce Coach, Lawyer, Mediator, Author, and Speaker. She coaches people to make hard decisions with confidence, and navigate divorce with dignity.  She speaks and writes about the art and science of making difficult decisions in emotionally-charged circumstances. To connect with Karen and discover how she can help you, CLICK HERE.


deciding to divorce, divorce after 50, divorce and emotional health, divorce blog, divorce stress, marriage

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  • I can relate to this all too well. Desperately unhappy but there is no remotely decent and honorable way out.

    It’s killing me, but not fast enough.

    • I just read this article and it really was an realization of how serious this relates to me completely. I’ve always felt sick and knew it was because of my marriage but never thought it was killing me.

    • In response to [R: “not fast enough.”]
      Hah!! I feel like that but have great difficulty surrendering. It would be way too convenient for him if I died, after the sacrifices I’ve made for my marriage; (unreciprocated, his true nature revealed now that Im isolated.) I die from it and he gets to enjoy his retirement? No. If he wants control of all the finances and keep me locked up in his house away from friends, family, support, well then he can deal with the fallout. I’m not leaving. I am not dying. I refuse to die in this miserable state anyway. I’m going home to die. Have my bad marriage kill me so he can run off and enjoy the fruits of our marriage? I plan to stick around! If I were 20 I would walk away. No question, without a doubt, in the middle of the night with a blanket, I would walk away. I would walk 1200 miles back to my home. But the fact is I am not 20 and I am financially dependent on someone who controls everything. And now God sees fit to tether me still with a serious illness. So what to do?
      What I’m not going to do is simply allow him to kill me. It’s already kind of late, damage has been done-I almost did die, but I am still here and I like who I am. I’m fun, I’m fun to be around (when I’m happy.) I’m creative and talented and pretty and vivacious. I just don’t like being in this relationship, so don’t give up. Remember who you are and remember those things you love about yourself. Do those things and be that person. I have no clear advice for you or anyone and I search and read every single night as I cry like a babe. Hobbies, volunteering, exercise…. it’s all the same, the advice given in the articles I read. Meditate. HAH! I’d like to meditate myself out of here!
      I have been trying to detach some from my ball & chain. I am knuckle dragging depressed, anxious, I now have heart disease and everything that’s in that article above is true because it’s happened to me. Every single symptom. Even some weird leukemia! ( does it merit mentioning that his ex-wife has lymphoma? How weird is that? ) I don’t blame it all on my bad marriage but I do believe the escalation of my health problems are absolutely sourced from the stress of my situation. A situation that, in the end, I can blame on no one but myself. If you can’get out, people, get out! Live your life! Breathe the air! Be happy! You only live one time and time flies by. Other People do not have the right to hurt you. Take back your power. And save some money and go talk to a lawyer. I did. (She laughed at me. ???? My situation is so absurd that a $350 an hour lawyer laughed at me. ????????Anyway I wish everyone the best. ????????)

  • Pretty much everything on the list applies to me. My husband’s answer is go to the doctor and get some pills. I’ve been having All these test and I just wish I would go to bed and not wake up. I’m now finding myself shutting down.

  • I completely agree with all of these my marriage is a disaster it’s ruined my life with my kids , family , job , desire to see a way forward , we don’t get on but having no job no family he knows I am stuck

  • This is both eye-opening, and alarming.
    I’m a relatively healthy 47 year old & was shocked when I found out I have high blood pressure. I have been exercising again & eating healthier for over a month now –
    The only times my blood pressure has been elevated is when his drama gets the best of me.
    26 years of this is enough.
    I want to, I NEED to be around for my kids – 24, 22, 20, 18, 15, & 13 years old – & my grandbaby(s) – 17 months old.

    • I feel your pain I never had blood pressure issues before I get married and just like you I was a very a healthy individual I truly believe that you can marry the wrong person and endured 30 years of a living hell and desperately want out and the really sad part is she don’t even see it she wants to go on with life as normal…we even sleep in separate bedrooms!!!

      • I’m in the exact same situation. Been together 22 years, married 17 1/2, have 2 girls, 20 & 16, and haven’t had sex or slept in the same room for 14 years!!! Yet he acts like this is normal!!! He’s an alcoholic, will never admit it, and thinks our family is normal!!

      • OMG! I can sympathize Donald. I’ve been been in a horrible marriage for 31 years. For the first 20, I thought it was normal to fight all the time and resent your spouse for being a selfish prick. Then I learned that healthy relationships are not mystical rumors. That they really do exist. (No I didn’t have an affair, our youngest son and his girlfriend actually like and respect each other. What a nice concept!). I should have divorced him 27 years ago when I became pregnant with our first child. He never wanted children and was an absolutely HORRIBLE father. Our children can’t stand to be around him. And now, neither can I. In fact being around him is literally making me sick. I’m depressed, can’t sleep, I’ve gained weight (in an unhealthy belly fat kinda way), my hair is falling out, and I’ve aged beyond my physical years. I have no friends because he’s so negative and foul-mouthed. He’s insecure, close minded, critical of everything I do and, over the years, he’s just about worn me down to nothing. And right when I’m about to put him in my rear view, he get a bacterial infection that puts him in the hospital for 2 months and leaves him “disabled”. That was two years ago. I’m using air quotes here because he is making the conscious choice to remain disabled. He refuses to seek follow up treatment. Refuses to rehab. Refuses to do anything but watch tv, play on his phone, and collect a small disability check. He says he enjoys being retired. He’s 56. His health issues are 100% his fault. He has never, not one time been to the doctor in 30 years. He says they’re quacks and there aren’t any good ones anyway. He’s lazy and selfish and now I’m trapped. I work two full time jobs and make good money but I can’t keep running at this pace. I originally took on two jobs to pay down our credit bills and build up a savings account for a house down payment (yes, I’m in my 50’s and renting because my selfish prick husband had a 3 year affair that devastated me and left our life in shambles. That also would have been the time to leave but I’m terrible thick headed) i want to go back to working one job but If I file for divorce, I’m concerned the judge will require me to pay alimony and I’ll be forced to continue working two jobs forever. I hate him so much. He’s crushing my soul and yet God sees fit to keep me tied to this person. I want to run away from home and never come back. I’m a decent, God-fearing, hard-working woman and I deserve more than being a prisoner for the rest of my life.

        • It truly sounds like you’re in a bad spot. I know you’re working like crazy, but you might want to start taking some time out for yourself. Get a counselor. Focus on your needs for a change.

          You’ve said yourself that you’re making yourself sick. You can’t keep going at this pace. So right now, today, make a decision to change.

          You’re NOT destined to be stuck in the situation you’re in right now forever. But if you want your situation to change YOU have to be the one to make that happen. Your husband isn’t going to do it. But YOU totally can!

          Believe in yourself. Get some rest. Focus on yourself. You’ll get there.


  • I am in my second marriage and it is horrible almost 11 years now. I never loved him but tried so hard. He is a very unlovable person. He shows no affection whatsoever. We have been sleeping in seperate rooms for ove half our marriage.

  • I am in first marriage with my wife whom I divorced two years ago for two reasons.1.She don’t welcome my friends to come home.2.she don’t keep my properties.

  • My marriage is so bad that in the last five years I have been diagnosed with leukemia, atrial fibrillation , an enlarged left ventricle w/ mitral valve regurgitation, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety and PTSD, which I already had. We live in a high crime area which is triggered the PTSD. My husband is narcissistic. He, I have learned through reading, has probably used coercive grooming since I was 22 He uses gaslighting. He obfuscates and takes advantage of some of the cognitive problems I’ve had since being on so many medications. He knows I don’t remember things sometimes so he will argue that I said something I didn’t or I did something that I didn’t do. He changes things around but I do my best to stay alert. he obfuscates and takes advantage of some of the cognitive problems I’ve had since being on so many medications. He knows I don’t remember things sometimes so he will argue that I said something I didn’t or I did something that I didn’t do. He changes things around to but I do my best to stay alert I believe he is a classic compensatory narcissist. There’s no dx of course.

    Now you might think why don’t I get out. He controls everything. All the finances I don’t even know where the money is. There are accounts into countries. Hidden accounts. All electronics statements. His 401(k) beneficiary is listed as “as Florida law allows.” That is not my name in it and take it to have of his secretiv there are accounts into countries. Hidden accounts. All electronics statements. His 401(k) beneficiary is listed as “as Florida law allows.“ He keeps all the passwords. He has two or 3 phones. He seems to know everything I say and do. Sometimes I think he has a nanny cam in our house. We live in Florida. That’s illegal. So I have spent time looking which is ridiculous. He is in a form of enforcement although he is not a policeman but he has ingratiated himself within the police and sheriffs office.
    The domestic violence office is in the same courthouse where he presents his cases. I don’t dare go there. I’m afraid there’s GPS in our truck so I canceled a meeting to meet an advocate.

    And I think one of the hardest things is I have a 25-year-old horse who I’ve had since he’s nine. I cannot leave him here. The heat is affecting him negatively and I want to take him home but I have no money. I don’t even have the money for a retainer unless it’s just a few hundred dollars but then it’s thousands after that. My family is 1200 miles away and I don’t really have a support system down here. I am isolated and spent most of my time in the house, alone. I feel like a scullery maid although I have been shirking my duties lately because I feel so terrible. The type of cancer I have they call “the good cancer,” if you could think there is such a thing. I used to be fairly good looking and now I have very little confidence in that department. My hair is horrible; I have some sort of partial alopecia. I am still tall; still pretty; but he is no longer interested in me. He says he loves me but they’re just words. His actions say otherwise. He spends all his free time on the Internet. When we sit together he is engrossed in his device and there is a wall between us. Even with him I am alone.
    He would use my dogs cats and horses and law-enforcement against me. For example if I got very angry, & threw something, which I do not do, he would call the police and file a report. He actually did this with his ex-wife. He is 6 foot five and 250+ pounds and has an arsenal of weapons but yet he had to get a restraining order against this woman? It’s absurd but it’s also very frightening. He is very charismatic and there is not one person who he knows that would believe he could be abusive in anyway. He views everyone he meets either male or female as a conquest. They must find him to be the most chivalrous prince charming that has ever been or he is not satisfied. I feel he’s very insecure. Pathologically. And naturally he openly flirts with anything female even when I’m with him.
    I don’t know what to do. Start a go fund me page? Beg? And I’m not young. We’ve been together 10 Years. Second marriage. I’ll be alone the rest of my life. What do I do? What do I do?

    • I can hear how much you’re spinning in your head. It sounds like you’re really in a tough spot.

      Since you’re not comfortable going to the domestic violence office, maybe you could call them instead. You could also start seeing a therapist who has experience dealing with domestic violence issues, as well as other things. You could tell your husband that you’re going to a therapist, but you don’t need to tell him why. (Even if you chose a therapist who DIDN’T specialize in domestic violence, that would be fine.) The bottom line is that a good therapist can help you figure out your next steps and support you along the way. S/he could help you build yourself up and make a plan for your future. Plus, most therapists take insurance, so that makes going to them more affordable.

      Whatever you do, having help will make things easier and clearer. So start with that. Just take one step forward. You can worry about your next step after that.

      Hope this helps.


      • Thank you for your article. I have been under chronic stress for almost 20 years and have had a ‘knowing’ that it was negatively impacting my health. Your article confirms it and so do the other comments here. I’ve decided to make my priority myself and get out of this marriage as soon as I reasonably can. I encourage all you other ladies out there to choose YOU and do the same. God bless you all.

  • I’m in the exact same situation. Been together 22 years, married 17 1/2, have 2 girls, 20 & 16, and haven’t had sex or slept in the same room for 14 years!!! Yet he acts like this is normal!!! He’s an alcoholic, will never admit it, and thinks our family is normal!!

  • I would have left years ago if I had money, and the real kicker is, I’d probably be more successful financially if I weren’t so beaten down, depressed, sick and exhausted. Some days I can barely lift my head.

    • I can feel your despair! I don’t know how bad your marriage is, but I can tell how unhappy you are. If you can’t see a way out right now, then find someone who can. A good therapist can be that person. You can also find answers in a support group.

      What’s important to realize is that you need help – and getting help is okay! It doesn’t make you bad, or wrong, or weak. Needing help is human. We all need help from time to time. Other people – especially professionals – can often help us see what we can’t see ourselves. So right now, get the help you need. Don’t wait.

      And, if you’re feeling really down and desperate, please call the Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.

      Don’t try to do this alone. Get help. Now. Please.


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