To paraphrase the Russian novelist Tolstoy, there are a million ways in which a marriage can go wrong and only one in which it can go right (actually, the quotation from Anna Karenina was “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but the implication is the same). Problems associated with anxiety of one or both spouses can be disruptive to a marriage and family.
McLeod (1994) examined various types of anxiety disorders in one or both spouses and their effects on marital satisfaction. Phobic disorders in one or both spouses was associated with the worst reports of marital quality. However, if the spouses shared a phobia, the impact on the marriage was not as dire. Panic disorders were the next most likely to create marital problems. Wives reporting general anxiety reported poor satisfaction with the marriage. However, the same anxiety problems in husbands resulted the poorest outcomes only when combined with factors like depression, alcohol dependence, or drug abuse.
Of course, McLeod’s report focused on full-blown anxiety disorders and their effects on marital satisfaction and quality. A bit of anxiety does not a full-blown anxiety disorder make, and most marriages can cope with a bit of anxiety without bad consequences. However, if one’s spouse does suffer from an untreated anxiety disorder, it might lead to problems with the marriage. Spouses with concerns regarding the effects of possible anxiety problems might therefore seek professional help in coping the problem before it has a chance to evolve into marital problems.
Married couples can take comfort in the numerous studies documenting that marriage tends to convey reduced risks for a range of problems, including those related to anxiety. Scott et al. (2010) carried out a large, multinational study with over 34,000 adult participants. They found that marriage can reduce the risk of most kinds of mental disorders (including those related to anxiety), compared to adults who had never been married. However, they reported some differences in gender. Marriage tended to provide a greater reduction of risk for both depression and panic disorder (related to anxiety) to men. Marriage seemed to reduce women’s risk of substance abuse. In other words, marriage provided men a protective factor against developing anxiety, whereas marriage provided less of a protective factor against anxiety for women.
However, just because married individuals have reduced risk for various mental health problems—including anxiety disorders—it does not mean that something about marriage directly reduces that level of risk. After all, not every married adult has smooth sailing through life. The question is why does marriage, and the inherent support and stability that it offers, fail to insulate and protect some adults from the triggers of anxiety-related and other mental health problems?
One possible answer comes from an interesting study by Brown et al. (1996). They studied a sample of 404 women living with at least one child in inner-city London (these women came from a variety of backgrounds, some single, some married but separated, some divorced, and some widowed). The researchers assessed the various types of problems and mental health disorders these women living on the edge faced. They found they could sort the women into two groups: those who had experienced very bad situations as children (such as neglect or abuse) and those who had not. Among those women with the more difficult childhoods, adult mental health problems such as depression and anxiety disorders were common. However, among the adult women who had experienced stressors as adults—such as from divorce or death of a spouse—only depression tended to result. Thus, it may not be marriage itself that creates the somewhat reduced risk for anxiety-related problems in adults; it may be the luck of having had fewer severe problems in childhood.
In summary, research suggests that marriage is associated with reduced risk for anxiety, and this benefits men more than women. When anxiety does exist, they can create problems in the marriage. Also, other factors, like adverse childhood experiences, may increase the risk for anxiety, regardless of marital status.