Juggling a full-time job with three school-age children, I'm all too familiar with the daily stresses of deadlines, homework, and how to get to (choose one): soccer practice, baseball game, school play, orthodontist. But at least I can usually look forward to a quiet dinner with my husband—albeit rarely before 9 p.m.—followed by some snuggle time in front of the TV.
That downtime, it turns out, may give me a health advantage over stressed-out moms in tense marriages. By lowering my levels of the stress hormone cortisol, the happy evening hours with my husband might be protecting me against depression, diabetes, and heart disease. That's according to a new study from the University of California-Los Angeles. Working moms in unhappy marriages don't get the benefit of an evening decline in cortisol, the researchers found.
In working dads, cortisol levels plunge after work regardless of whether they reported being in satisfying marriages. Call it the beer and football effect: Men may be better able to unwind without the aid of pleasant conversation. Previous research indicates that even miserable attached guys have longer life spans and less heart disease than bachelors, whereas women only reap these benefits if their marriage is a happy one.
A few things about the study, published in the January issue of Health Psychology, leave me skeptical, however. The researchers measured cortisol levels in only 30 couples, and for a mere seven days—not enough time to cycle through the ups and downs of a typical marriage. A good marriage today can easily feel like a bad marriage next month, and vice versa. Persistently bad marriages, of course, might need to be ended. But women can find other ways to lower their cortisol levels when their spouse is emotionally unavailable. A call to a friend, sibling —heck, even mom—can serve as a substitute to unwind after work, experts say. Exercise is another great way to lower stress hormones. Or this often works for me when Dad's putting the kids to bed: I turn on my kitchen radio and dance around to the Top 40 while deciding what to make for dinner.