Family Focus

Is Your Marriage Hurting Your Heart?

A so-so marriage can create emotional distress and affect blood pressure.

When Melissa (name changed) was married two decades ago, she expected her marriage would be mostly perfect. She didn’t anticipate that negatives in her marriage would come so close to outweighing positives. She says her husband struggles to feel empathy, which causes her and their children to feel distant and unloved. But it isn’t all bad. She notes that he’s a hard worker, provides security, and can be supportive and affectionate at times.

With such back-and-forth feelings, Melissa is never quite sure where she and her husband stand. “I don’t share my thoughts and feelings with my spouse because I don’t know whether I will be met with support or dismissal,” she says. “This has led to increased anxiety and stress for me.”

Wendy Church Birmingham (BS ’06), an assistant professor of psychology, calls marriages like Melissa’s “ambivalent”—they’re relationships where many things are working well but enough things aren’t that the positives can sometimes feel cancelled out. Birmingham studies the health implications of marriage—strong and struggling. She’s found that people like Melissa might have compromised heart health over time.

“Even minor elevations in blood pressure strains the cardiovascular system, and elevated blood pressure increases the risk of future cardiovascular disorders,” says Birmingham, lead author of a recent article in The Annals of Behavioral Medicine. “Our study showed that men and women who experience their marriage as ambivalent have significantly higher blood pressure than those who don’t.”

Birmingham and her colleagues studied 94 married couples between 18 and 63 years old. Each participant wore a blood pressure device that took measurements every 30 minutes for 24 hours. Participants kept a diary to report if they were interacting with their spouse at the time of the blood pressure reading, and if so, they reported on three relationship measures: perceived partner responsiveness, intimacy, and disclosure.

Birmingham says many studies show that marriage is healthy and beneficial overall, “but the quality of the marriage matters. Just being married, per se, doesn’t confer all the possible benefits—and it can include negatives significant enough to affect physical health.” She and family life professor Stephen F. Duncan (MS ’85) suggest couples experiencing marital ambivalence take positive steps to tip the scales toward marital bliss.

See the Negatives

Every marriage is ambivalent to some degree, says Duncan. Most marriages have their share of negatives, he says, and they should be acknowledged and addressed: “Seeing the negatives is good because they point you to areas that need change. Every couple should inventory their marriage regularly and agree on ways to improve on what’s not working.” When assessing, couples should look for two of the most powerful marriage eroders—first, negative interactions, and second, unrealistic or unexpressed expectations.

Negative Interactions. Toxic ingredients that can slowly but surely poison a marriage if not addressed include criticism, stonewalling (“the silent treatment”), defensiveness, and contempt, says Duncan. He cites marriage researcher John Gottman, who found that it takes about five positive interactions to override the damage of one negative interaction. Couples who have positives in that five-to-one ratio tend to have better long-term stability and marital happiness. “If interactions are more heavily weighted toward the negative, the Gottman model suggests that those relationships, unless modified to be more positive, can be headed in time toward self-destruction,” says Duncan.

Unmet Expectations. Expectations run deep, he says, and couples who don’t communicate them are bound to experience disappointment and upset feelings as a spouse appears to ignore an important need. “Expectations come from our families of origin, the media, and our prior relationships,” Duncan says. “Sometimes we look for our spouses to be the sum total of all the good things in our prior relationships, which is, of course, unrealistic.”

Fulfillment of expectations is a “huge” part of whether a marriage builds in strength over time or weakens. But expectations are tricky, says Duncan, because spouses may not be fully aware of their expectations or not clearly express them, assuming that their spouse already understands them.

“Spouses need to identify their expectations, evaluate which ones are unrealistic or unreasonable, and bring out into the light those that are hidden or unspoken,” he says. Even if spouses are individually aware of their expectations and those expectations are reasonable, if they’re not spoken they can undermine the marriage.

For example, says Duncan, if, after a stressful day at home, a wife expects her husband to intuit that her temper is short and he shouldn’t make additional demands on her, her expectation is unrealistic. Instead, he says, “communicate clearly that ‘I’m a little cranky right now and I need some distance for a bit and it’s not about you.’”

Try a Soft Startup

As couples assess their marriage and determine areas for improvement, they can reduce ambivalence by identifying problems and working together. But asking a spouse to change is a delicate matter—no one wants to be criticized or accused. Duncan says a key factor to success is the “soft startup”—gentle and kind expression of needs.

In addressing concerns Duncan warns against harsh startups, such as, “I can’t stand how you choose Pinterest over me” or “All you care about is your guns and your hunting and I’m fed up.” He also cautions against public settings for any kind of feedback. Even indirect references to your spouse’s shortcomings while you’re out with friends is a bad idea. You will embarrass your spouse, and chances are you’ll get reinforced by your peer group, both of which will fuel the problems.

For a wife who is feeling emotionally neglected, says Duncan, a soft startup could go something like this: “Sweetheart, I love that you show me you love me by working so hard to provide for our family. Could you show me with words too sometimes?”

Duncan suggests that spouses raise issues softly and privately. “You’re much more likely to get an encouraging response if you can say, ‘I’m really struggling with how we’re communicating. I’m not feeling heard, and I’d like to see that change. Would you be willing to read a book with me? Or go see the bishop or a counselor—someone who is knowledgeable about helping us become more sensitive to one another?’”

Positive Efforts

Duncan and Birmingham both believe that some degree of ambivalence exists in every marriage. No perfect person or relationship exists. But too much ambivalence is dangerous to both the relationship and to each spouse’s physical health, especially long-term heart health. Reducing negatives and increasing positives are possible with effort from both husband and wife, they say.

While in some cases an individual is truly resistant to working on his or her marriage, in most cases, Duncan says, couples can make real progress if they are “willing to sacrifice their pride and their shortcomings for the sake of their spouse and their eternal progression together.” 

Self-Regulating Can Reduce Ambivalence

If a husband and wife want to become happier and more content in their marriage, both have to be “self-regulators,” says family life professor Stephen F. Duncan (MS ’85). That means committing oneself to doing what’s needed to be the best partner possible. Duncan suggests several guidelines for becoming a better self-regulator:

• Don’t expect your partner to change.

• Make conscious, intentional efforts toward improving yourself.

• Regularly check on whether you’re doing your part to strengthen your relationship.

• Recognize that marriage is not easy and requires sacrifices from you.

• Confront problems in your marriage with love and patience toward both yourself and your spouse.

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