Claims that men are being 'nagged to death' inflated

Behind the Headlines

Friday May 9 2014

Men appeared to be more vulnerable to the effects of a stressful relationship

Claims that women nag more than men are unproven

“Nagging could drive men to an early grave, study suggests,” The Independent reports. A Danish study found that both sexes were adversely affected by constant nagging, but men seemed to be more vulnerable.

A cohort study was conducted with the aim of evaluating the association between stressful social relations and death from any cause.

What the papers labelled as “nagging” was defined by the researchers as (to paraphrase slightly) “people demanding too much of you, seriously worrying you or being a source of conflict”.

Much of the reporting failed to make clear that the researchers did not just study social relationships between partners, but also children, other family members, friends and neighbours.

It found that frequent demands or worries from partners and children increased the risk of death during an 11-year follow-up period, as can conflict with your partner, other family members, friends and neighbours.

As this was a cohort study, there could be other factors (confounders) responsible for the link seen. For example, they corrected for underlying diseases (by measuring hospitalisations), but it is possible that the adjustment may not have fully accounted for any underlying illnesses or risk factors for death.

If you find relationships with your partner (or anyone else) a source of tension and conflict, you may benefit from talking therapy.

 

Nagging or verbal abuse?

All couples argue from time to time, and most of us nag loved ones when we are feeling annoyed or tired.

 

But if you find yourself being the target of sustained and unpleasant language that is designed to intimidate, humiliate and undermine your self-esteem, then this may amount to verbal abuse.

 

Read more about the different types of abuse and the help that is available

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Copenhagen and was funded by the Danish Research Council and the Nordea Denmark Foundation.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This story was widely reported on by the media, which seized on the idea of men being nagged to death by their wives. The tone of the reporting was arguably sexist, as it ignored the negative effects that women in stressful social relations also experienced.

The claim that “men are being nagged to death” was based on a comparison between men with high levels of worries and demands and women with low levels of worries and demands.

It is unclear exactly why the researchers performed this comparison, rather than comparing men with low levels of worries and demands to men with high levels; as the saying goes, it’s like comparing apples with oranges.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was a cohort study that aimed to evaluate the link between stressful social relations (with partners, children, other family members, friends and neighbours, respectively) and death from any cause.

A cohort study did not show that stressful social relations caused people to die. There may be other factors (confounders) that are responsible for the link seen.

For example, people with poor mental health may be more likely to experience relationship problems and die prematurely.

 

What did the research involve?

The researchers used information on 9,870 men and women aged between 36 and 52 from the Danish Longitudinal Study on Work, Unemployment and Health.

To measure stressful social relations, participants were asked: “in your everyday life, do any of the following people demand too much of you or seriously worry you?” and “in your everyday life, do you experience conflicts with any of the following people?” with one item for each of the following social roles: partner, children (their own or a partner’s), other family members, friends and neighbours.

Participants could select “always”, “often”, “sometimes”, “seldom”, “never” or “have none”.

The researchers followed the people for 11 years to see whether they died.

They also looked to see if there was a link between stressful social relations with a partner, children, other family members, friends and neighbours respectively, and death. The researchers compared the risk of death for people who responded “always”, “often”, “sometimes”, and “never” to people who responded “seldom”.

They adjusted their analyses for:

  • age
  • gender
  • cohabitation status
  • occupational social class 
  • hospitalisation with a chronic disorder between 1980 and 2000 (the start of the study)

The researchers then performed additional analyses to see whether the links were different in men and women, and in people who were employed and unemployed.

 

What were the basic results?

During the 11-year follow-up period:

  • “Always” (hazard ratio [HR] 1.93, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.02 to 3.65) and “often” (HR 1.81, 95% CI 1.23 to 2.67) experiencing worries and demands from a partner was associated with an increased risk of death compared to those who answered with “seldom”.
  • "Always/often" experiencing worries and demands from children was associated with an increased risk of death (HR 1.55, 95% CI 1.08 to 2.20). "Never" experiencing worries and demands from children was associated with a borderline significant increased risk of death (HR 1.30, 95% CI 1.00 to 1.68). 
  • "Always/often" experiencing conflict with a partner was associated with an increased risk of death (HR 2.19, 95% CI 1.49 to 3.21)
  • "Always" (HR 2.64, 95% CI 1.29 to 5.39), "often" (HR 2.31, 95% CI 1.37 to 3.87) and "sometimes" (HR 1.36, 95% CI 1.03 to 1.80) experiencing conflict with other family were all associated with an increased risk of death.
  • "Always/often" (HR 2.63, 95% CI 1.16 to 5.93) and "sometimes" (HR 1.50, 95% CI 1.05 to 2.14) experiencing conflict with friends were both associated with an increased risk of death. 
  • "Always" (HR 3.07, 95% CI 1.49 to 6.32), "often" (HR 2.76, 95% CI 1.12 to 6.80) and "sometimes" (HR 1.78, 95% CI 1.20 to 2.66) experiencing conflict with neighbours were all associated with an increased risk of death. 

In their additional analyses, the researchers found that people exposed to worries/demands (always/often) or conflicts (always/often) from their partner, who were also unemployed, had a higher risk of death than employed people with low stress (sometimes/seldom/never) from their partner.

Compared to women with low stress from their partner, men exposed to worries/demands or conflicts had a higher risk of dying. Women exposed to frequent conflict also had a higher risk of dying compared to women with low levels of conflict with their partner.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that: “stressful social relations are associated with increased mortality risk among middle-aged and women for a variety of different roles. Those outside the labour force and men seem especially vulnerable to exposure”.

 

Conclusion

This Danish cohort study found that frequent demands or worries from partners and children increased the risk of dying during an 11-year follow-up period, as can conflict with your partner, other family members, friends and neighbours.

These results are not particularly surprising. The harmful effects of sustained stress over a long period of time on both mental and physical health are well-established.

Methods and treatments that may help improve the quality of your relationships include:

If you are on the receiving end of sustained abuse, either physical or psychological, it’s important to seek help.

Read more advice about what to do if you feel unhappy about or frightened by the way your partner treats you.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS ChoicesFollow Behind the Headlines on TwitterJoin the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Nagging could drive men to an early grave, study suggests. The Independent, May 9 2014

You really can be nagged to death! 'Excessive demands' from partners can double risk of dying during middle age. Mail Online, May 9 2014

Nagging could cost the lives of hundreds of men. The Daily Telegraph, May 9 2014

Being 'nagged to death' is possible, say researchers. Daily Express, May 9 2014

Links to the science

Lund R, Christensen U, Nilssoon CJ, et al. Stressful social relations and mortality: a prospective cohort study. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Published online May 8 2014

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Media last reviewed: 12/05/2016

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