Can a Toxic Marriage Make You Sick? The Answer Is YES
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August 21, 2014 - Updated May 23, 2017

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Can a toxic marriage make you sick? The answer is yes. Bad relationships can severely disrupt sleep patterns, cause unhealthier eating habits, and lower the immune system. This leaves our poor bodies unable to fight off sickness and disease. In my case, I truly believe that my terrible marriage helped me get cancer.

Prior to being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in January 2012, I had an insanely busy life. I worked a demanding job, tried to keep a home together with almost no help from my husband, managed a vacation home, raised two children, cared for two large dogs, and attempted to keep my marriage together. It was an incredible amount of responsibility and I was emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted.

In January 2012 when an oncologist said those dreaded words “you have cancer” my first thought was “my husband made me sick.” His inability to help me with our home, children, dogs—nothing – pushed me over the edge. Before getting cancer, I was often sick throughout our marriage. It seemed that I either had a cold or flu or stomach flu all the time. Where was my responsibility in all of this? I failed to set boundaries, was unable to just let some of the responsibilities go, and stayed in a toxic marriage far too long. This realization left me with intense anger and guilt.

Not long ago, I read a book about cancer and the author said that in most cases, there was a traumatic emotional experience about a year prior to diagnosis. I thought back to where I had been in January 2011. My husband and I had just come back from a family cruise. On that trip, he had promised me that he was going to finally quit drinking, go to regular AA meetings, and train for a marathon. He was going to be a new man! "I love you and the kids and I am going to get well, I promise.”

The rest of the year was quite the whirlwind. My husband didn’t drink (to my knowledge) for a few months. He started running and lost a lot of weight. We started getting along better. In February, I got the surprise of my life. At the age of 43, I was pregnant, my first natural pregnancy. (Despite undergoing IVF, I never could conceive and adopted both of my daughters.) We were stunned and after the shock wore off, we were rooting for the baby to make it. We told our friends and family. I miscarried. We went to Costa Rica on vacation. A few months later, I was pregnant again. I miscarried that one, too. It sucked. Hubby ran his marathon and started drinking again right after the race.

That summer, we took a family vacation. While at a friend’s lake house, I watched my husband go through a huge bottle of Jack Daniels over a three day period. When we at a hotel in Little Rock for several days, he regularly disappeared and came back reeking of alcohol and slurring words. We got home and separated because I could no longer tolerate his behavior, lies, and broken promises. He made a pledge to go back to treatment (which didn’t happen) and we moved back in together. In September, I told him that I was making plans to leave him permanently. I started a new job and we moved from a large home into a smaller one. It was an insanely busy time; I was an emotional wreck.

…And unbeknownst to me, cancer cells were proliferating throughout my body. Growing faster and faster. I didn’t know it yet, but I was becoming more and more anemic. The fact that I didn’t end up with organ failure was truly miraculous.

Yes, bad relationships can leave us prone to illness. Emotions have a powerful effect on our health. That mind-body connection? It is real. And women are more susceptible to more illnesses when in bad relationships than men. The research is in and it’s well documented. One such study conducted by Ohio State University, which released its findings in 2013, showed that women in highly stressful marriages had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower levels of T-cells, which are important to the immune system to fight off infections. I have no doubt that had I been part of that study, my immune system would have been a Big Fat Zero throughout my entire marriage. Did it make me get cancer? I believe yes. Does it mean that everyone who gets cancer was in a terrible marriage? Of course not. But in my case, my body simply could no longer handle anything else. Something had to give and the consequences were enormous.

On my path to healing and beating my disease, I knew that I had to start putting my needs at the top of my priority list. I needed to rest, find peace and joy, and surround myself with people I loved. My survival depended on it. While I was, on the one hand, attempting to get well and fight off cancer, I was, on the other hand, fighting off my husband who was emotionally terrorizing me in the divorce process. Fight-heal-heal-fight. It was horrid. But once I made it through two stem cell transplants and intensive chemo, and my divorce was finalized, it was time to heal physically and emotionally. I started going to Bikram yoga and learned to connect my body and soul together. I meditated and prayed. I tried to manage stress in better ways. It’s still a process but I am trying every single day.

So what do we do about bad relationships and our health?

Leave and stay gone

We must learn to recognize when we’re in a dangerously bad marriage. Sounds obvious but it’s not. For those of us in really terrible marriage, we often ignore our innate “fight or flight” instinct.  We wonder if maybe our partner isn’t as bad as we think he is. Maybe the problems in the relationship are our fault and we need to change. Maybe we can fix the marriage by being better or trying harder. Coming to the determination that it’s not fixable and it’s time to get out is the first step. Actually leaving the marriage is the next step, and this can take years, unfortunately. Once you’ve left, do not go back to the marriage and try again! Make it permanent.  

Take care of yourself

Your needs and wants matter, too. Oftentimes, we women put everyone else first. But if we don’t take care of ourselves, it’s impossible to adequately take care of anyone else. We must schedule proper sleep and rest times, take emotional and mental breaks, and do things that we love.

Get well

Heal and recover. This can include therapy, support groups, massage and acupuncture, vacations, self-help books, exercise, finding or reconnecting with God or a higher power, developing healthy relationships, maybe even hypnotherapy … Whatever it is, do it and feel no guilt. Be selfish, it’s ok.

Find your support system

Lean on friends and family. Be open and honest about your marriage, why you left, and your path to healing. Seek out healthier relationships in the future. Make sure you find a partner that isn’t like your ex-husband. (Somehow, I seem to attract the same kind of man. Not sure how this happens!) Make a list of the kind of guy you’re looking for. Once you have that list, date with your eyes wide open. Listen and observe carefully. You may even want to talk to your new guy’s ex (if that’s an option) to see if there are any additional clues there. If there are disturbing patterns, run!

For me, my journey of exiting my marriage and getting healthy again has been a long road, one that I'm still traveling. I have another two months left of my two-year maintenance plan and then perhaps a lifetime of pills. I have labs every three months. And I do everything I can to maintain relationships that are healthy for me. If you're in a toxic relationship, I hope and pray it doesn't take a cancer diagnosis (or any other huge health crisis) for you to save yourself and leave. 

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