Constant Bickering in Marriage Brings New Meaning to “I’m Sick of You”

Revised 3/2/21

Researchers at Ohio State University, in the US, found that spouses who engage in escalated, constant bickering in marriage are more likely to suffer from leaky gut syndrome. 

How serious is this?

Pretty damn serious. COVID serious, in fact…

Inside our bellies, we have an extensive intestinal lining that covers over 4,000 square feet of surface area. When this intestinal lining is doing what it’s supposed to, it forms a tight seal that carefully controls what can be absorbed into our bloodstream.

This research demonstrates that over time when couples fight and engage in constant bickering in marriage results in compromising this gut lining.

This wear and tear eventually create fissures and holes which allow dangerous bacteria, toxins, and even partially digested food to seep out of the gut and into the bloodstream and underlying tissue.

This ongoing damage may trigger inflammation and dangerous changes in the gut flora (healthy bacteria). The health problems that result may involve far more than just stomach problems.

One of the most promising areas in medical research today are studies that demonstrate that changes in intestinal bacteria and the resulting inflammation may play an essential role in the onslaught of several common chronic inflammatory diseases.

This was the first American study to show the health consequences of constant bickering in marriage. I wrote about a similar European study in a previous post.

Constant Bickering in Marriage Can Make You Seriously Ill

The Lead author of this study was Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, of The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. 

Here’s what she said about the findings:

“We think that this everyday marital distress – at least for some people – is causing changes in the gut that lead to inflammation and, potentially, illness. Hostility is a hallmark of bad marriages – the kind that leads to adverse physiological changes.”

About 40 married couples participated in the study. They were asked about their marriage, and then they were videoed for 20 minutes while they discussed their different point of view on volatile subjects such as conflicts with in-laws, and differences in spending habits.

The researchers were alert for evidence of hostile behavior, such as contempt, or criticism. Just as Gottman did in his now-famous “love lab” research, they took blood samples before and after these difficult conversations.

constant bickering in marriage

The Ohio Team Builds on Prior Research about Constant Bickering in Marriage

In a previous study, the same research team employed a tiny vacuum device which gave the study subjects eight 8-mm blisters on their forearms. Each couple was then videotaped while having these difficult conversations.

The researchers monitored these difficult conversations, and evaluated the couple’s communication skills, paying close attention to the spouses who were aggressively bickering.

After 12 days, the researchers reported that the blisters healed faster on the couples who had better conversations, and the blisters healed slower on the couples who engaged in aggressive bickering.

Why would physical wounds heal more quickly among the more collaborative couples? The researchers think it might have something to do with oxytocin.

“Oxytocin is a protective hormone,” says research leader Janice Kiecolt-Glaser. She noted that the couples who were better communicators had blisters that healed faster. They also had the highest levels of the peptide hormone oxytocin in their blood.

Biomarkers of Constant Bickering in Marriage

Here’s the bottom line on this research.

The more couples bickered, the higher the levels of the biomarker for leaky gut.

They also showed higher levels of inflammation throughout their entire bodies.

This same research team in a prior study that constant bickering in marriage could increase the time it takes for wounds to heal.

Michael Bailey, co-author of the study and a member of the Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, summed up the implications of the research:

” With leaky gut, the structures that are usually good at keeping the gunk in our gut – the partially digested food, bacteria and other products – degrade and that barrier becomes less effective. Bacteria in the blood, driving up inflammation, could potentially contribute to poor mental health – creating a loop.”

constant bickering in marriageConstant Bickering Can Make Older Couples Sicker Faster

Here’s another interesting finding. The average age of the leaky gut study subjects was only thirty-eight.

We already know that the risk of inflammation and inflammatory diseases increases with age.

That means older couples who engage in constant bickering in marriage are particularly vulnerable to the onset of a leaky gut syndrome leading to inflammatory diseases.

The researchers did offer pragmatic advice to deal with constant bickering in marriage. Take probiotics daily. Change your diet by consuming more Omega 3’s and other healthy fats. Focusing on eating more lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may also be beneficial.

If bickering goes unchecked, it’s highly predictive of future health problems, as well as a marital collapse.

Leaky Gut and COVID…a New Study from South Korea

Microbiologist Stanley Kim Ph.D., from South Korea University’s Laboratory for Human-Microbial Interactions, recently examined new data which indicates that poor gut health may exacerbate the severity of COVID infection.

If your constant bickering aggravates your leaky gut, the COVID you get might kill you. A leaky gut enables the COVID virus to reach deeper into the intestinal lining, digestive tract, and internal organs.

Once this occurs, infection in these organs spreads far more rapidly because they have widespread ACE2—a protein target of SARS-CoV-2—on the surface tissue.  Dr. Kim discussed his findings in mBio, an open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.

“There seems to be a clear connection between the altered gut microbiome and severe COVID-19,” said Dr. Kim.

Why do some people succumb to COVID? There’s growing evidence that poor gut health is a factor.

Somethings You Can Do Right Now to Curb Bickering in Your Marriage

Lower and Slower!  Do you really have to yell? Watch your tone of voice.

Agree to Disagree.  Really…just because you are married do you have to agree on everything? So, what if you don’t?

Make Repair Attempts.  Making repair attempts is a teachable skill.  When you come to an intensive, we will make you both experts on calming each other down. But in the meantime, try saying something like, “It makes me sad when we fight like this because I love you.”

“We’re Doing it Again.” Just because you’re bickering now means you can’t stop. Take a break for 20 minutes. Calm down. Recognize that escalation is a bigger enemy than your spouse ever will be. Learn to say “we’re doing it again” and stop talking.

Call Us to Get Science-Based Couples Therapy. Take action. Tell your spouse that you don’t want to fight anymore. Show them this blog post. And then get on the phone and call us. We can help.

Couples Therapy Can Help Curb Constant Bickering in Marriage

Gottman was so adamant on this point that he called them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and the most toxic of them all, Contempt.

When these horsemen show up with regularity, and men cannot accept influence from their wives, the likelihood of divorce skyrockets to 94%.

But we also know that you can become sick as well as tired in the literal sense. Marital bickering is highly toxic.

The Four Horsemen and flooding gradually increase negativity is such a powerful way it can not only leave you physiologically rattled, but it could also put your health at risk as well.

Habitual harsh startups, followed by frequent flooding feeds a flood of criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Therefore, some spouses become ill.

It takes time for the Four Horsemen and the flooding that follows to sabotage a marriage. But as a couple succumbs to negativity, they reduce their efforts to make repair attempts. The union slides into despair and recrimination, and health problems often follow. Couples therapy can help you break your destructive patterns.

Marital stress is often chronic, long-term, and inescapable. The longer you are exposed to it, the more compromised your health can become.  You both need the skills to reverse this negative feedback loop once and for all.

You can do this by learning how to fight fair by getting science-based couples therapy in our intensive online couples therapy.

Because You’re Both Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired…


The above-cited research was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. More researchers are also discussing the critical connection between marital happiness and physical health.

For example:

“Marital Quality and Physical Health in Mature Adults,” Jamila Bookwala, Ph.D., Lafayette College; Session 4072, 9:00 – 9:50 AM, Saturday, July 31, Hawaii Convention Center, Level 1 – Exhibit Hall, Kamehameha Exhibit Hall.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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