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Marriage's 'dark side': Spouses catch each other's bad behavior

As any single person with married friends can testify, their constant patter about how great marriage is for just about everything (Your heart! Your mood! Your life expectancy!) can be a little annoying. Research supports those pitying glances they shoot in your direction when you defend your singleness; long-term committed relationships like marriage really are good for your health. But, still.

That's all the more reason to embrace University of Cincinnati sociologist Corinne Reczek, who believes that research “has failed to look at the dark side” of coupledom.

In research presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas, Reczek provides a little balance.

Reczek interviewed 122 heterosexual, lesbian, and gay couples with an average age of older than 40 and an average relationship duration of between 14 and 25 years. Then she teased out subtle and direct clues as to how the couple interacted in health-related behaviors. What did she find? Three ways that partners can erode each other’s health habits: “influence,” “synchronicity” and “personal responsibility.”

The examples of each will sound familiar to any long-married person. “Yeah, I drink a Dr. Pepper every morning,” Jason, a man in the study, is quoted as saying. “It’s like a ritual.” Maria, who never drank sodas before marrying Jason, now indulges. She has also picked up his junk food habit. “I can definitely bring her health down, if she ever let herself get on the bandwagon, so to speak,” he told Reczek.

Jason is influencing his wife to drink soda and eat junk food and he’s dismissing any responsibility he may have for not changing his own habits by using the words “if she ever let herself,” an argument that his wife has personal responsibility for her own health. It’s not his job.

It's the guy's fault

Jason is a health habit bad boy and while both straight and homosexual couples contained such bad influencers, in the straight couples, it was almost always the guy’s fault.

“There was this commonality in the straight couples,” Reczek said an interview. “The straight men are identified as the bad actors and it’s not just the women who say so, the men identify themselves as bad.”

(Men can reflect upon our guilt as we sit in a La-Z-Boy with a built-in cooler and snack on Flamin' Hot Cheetos.)

Lesbian and gay couples tended to engage in more synchronicity, or “being bad together,” than do straight couples.

“If we’re going to have a breakdown, we both decide that we’re doing it,” reported David about how he and his partner, Stanley, indulge. “We go to the store and get a gallon of ice cream …and eat the whole thing. But we both agree. There’s not one that will go out and do it on their own, you know.”

There could be a silver lining to being a little bit bad together — not Randy and Evi Quaid bad, but “let’s order a double-cheese pizza” bad — Reczek explained.

“Sometimes eating bad food, sometimes being lazy or having the extra beer can be part of the glue that holds a relationship together,” she said. “It might be good for relationship quality.”