A Better Marriage Means Better Health

Reap rewards from a stronger relationship using these three strategies.

A happy marriage is like a tonic for your health. People who feel loved, respected, supported, and connected to their spouse enjoy everything from enhanced heart health and a stronger immune system to a longer life span. Research even shows that healthy, joyful relationships have a stronger influence on health than exercise does.

On the flip side, chronic marital stress can negatively impact physical and mental health. Relationship ups and downs are inevitable, of course, but when partners begin to ignore each other’s needs or when criticism or contempt begin creeping in, the health benefits of marriage start to wane.

New study

Researchers from Ohio State University and the University of Southern Mississippi recently reexamined data from a 2005 study that found that the stress caused by a fleeting marital argument was powerful enough to impact immunity to the point where wound healing slowed. In revisiting the data, the researchers found that in couples where one partner tended to criticize or nag their spouse, causing the other partner to grow defensive or withdraw from the argument, both spouses experienced delayed wound healing. Essentially, they found that chronic and acute negativity “is particularly bad for couples’ emotions, relationships, and immune functioning,” according to the new study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

This research, which looked exclusively at heterosexual couples, found that while men and women both suffer from hostile communication, women tend to bear the brunt of it.

Improve communication

Criticizing, blame, and withdrawal are common relationship tactics, but they’re incredibly destructive. Psychologist John Gottman, PhD, the nation’s most preeminent marriage researcher, actually refers to the emotion of contempt as “sulfuric acid for love.” There are far more constructive, kind ways to communicate with your spouse. Here are three evidence-based strategies that foster interconnectedness and growth.

Strategy #1: Sliding door moments

Your day is filled with opportunities to show your partner you care about them. These can seem insignificant—passing each other in the hallway, being asked to turn up the TV volume—but each one has the potential to nurture or erode your relationship. Consider these two examples of sliding door moments:

Scenario A: You’re relaxing on the couch, reading a great book, when your partner asks if you can help them with a quick home repair. You really want to see what happens next in this chapter. You could say, “Not right now, I’m reading,” or you could put the book down and prioritize your partner. Both choices seem fairly inconsequential in the moment, but when they accumulate over months and years, they shape how loved and valued the other person feels.

Scenario B: You’re doing a crossword puzzle in the kitchen when your partner walks in and starts venting about an upsetting event at work. You could put the pencil down and listen attentively, or you could snap, “Not again. I don’t have the energy to hear you complain about this anymore.”

As you can see, sliding door moments, and the way we react to them can be subtle or overt. But each involves one partner expressing a need and trusting the other one to acknowledge and respond to it.

When a partner consistently turns away, it pushes the couple towards a state where they feel they’re living parallel lives instead of sharing their life with one another. It’s these small interactions, micro-moments really, that can make or break a marriage much more than the occasional blow-up. Think of them as deposits in your marriage’s emotional bank account.

Strategy #2: Take a break from an argument

In the heat of the moment, your nervous system enters fight-or-flight mode. Heart rate quickens, blood pressure rises. Your body is primed for battle, and healthy communication goes out the window as you tend to argue in circles, prematurely shut down the other person’s point of view, or push your partner past their threshold, which often causes them to shut down and withdraw.

Here’s where a time-out can be a beautiful thing. Time-outs are a chance to calm down on a physiological level as well as consider your partner’s position. But you must use them wisely. There’s no point in taking a break if you spend the next hour ruminating or complaining to friends. Both will keep your nervous system ramped up and prevent you from seeing the argument from both sides. And there are almost always two sides to every disagreement.

It’s not easy, but if you sense your dispute escalating with no end in sight, calmly explain that you feel overwhelmed, and reassure your spouse that while you care about what they are saying and want to keep discussing it, you need to take a break. You could even say, “I think we need a time-out.” Next, change your environment and give your mind a break by taking a walk, working on a project, or organizing a junk drawer.

If your mind wanders into the land of anger, blame, or contempt, try to let it go and genuinely attempt to see the argument from your spouse’s viewpoint.

Once you feel more centered, it’s time to re-initiate the discussion. Preferably, this should be on the same day. Any longer and you run the risk of increasing anger and resentment. Think of it as a “do-over” and not your chance to prove you were right.

Changing gears like this in the heat of the moment is difficult but incredibly beneficial. It takes practice. You can also rehearse it during couples therapy. Which brings us to the next strategy.

Strategy #3: Couples therapy

Couples therapy has a reputation for being a last-resort option for couples that are somehow broken. But couple’s therapy is an indicator of health, not of dysfunction, offering a chance to examine your relationship as its own entity. (There’s you, there’s your partner, and then there’s your relationship). You can use it to work on anything from improving communication to balancing the emotional labor of the household to cultivating compassion and empathy. It requires vulnerability and a willingness to look at how you—yes, you—have contributed to your marriage’s struggles.

When interviewing therapists, ensure they have substantial experience working with couples. About 85 percent of therapists say they can do couples therapy, but only 5 percent have undergone the advanced training necessary to excel at it. One option is a Gottman-trained therapist who specializes exclusively in couples therapy. Find providers by visiting the Gottman Referral Network at gottmanreferralnetwork.com The ideal therapist practices “state-dependent” work, which safely guides you and your partner into the same stressful state you experience at home when arguing. This offers a window into how you communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, and allows the therapist to help you learn to use new skills when you need them the most. I use heart rate monitors to track my clients’ emotional dysregulation (doing so helps me learn about their communication patterns and also allows me to call attention to their physiology, so they can learn along with me) as well as to determine when it’s time to take a time-out.

Be prepared to commit to weekly sessions that last 75 to 90 minutes. Any less and you risk leaving the session over-aroused and more likely to fight on your way home.
Only 19 percent of couples seek marriage counseling, but of those who do, it has an 85 percent success rate.

More To Try

  • Online relationship workshops.
    Seek out classes that are tailored to your marriage’s pain points. My digital “Crisis to Connected” class, for instance, focuses on how to handle gridlock, that painful space where you get stuck on the same issues, arguing again and again about seemingly insignificant details that unravel your connection. Other classes are aimed at surviving infidelity or another major painful event, reigniting passion, and the like. 
  • Relevant books and podcasts.
    I frequently recommend Developing Habits for Relationship Success by Brent Atkinson, Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, Codependent No More by Melody Beattie, and the audiobook Your Brain on Love by Stan Tatkin.
This article, written by NCCT’s Kerry Lusignan, was originally published by Bottomline Health and republished with permission.
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