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April 19, 2010

Protective Benefits Of Marriage?

The health of your marriage is linked to your physical health according to a recent article in the New York Times Magazine. Scientists are studying the effect of marital conflict on the immune system, how conflict styles affect heart health, and what effect holding your partner's hand has on brain scans.

Researchers asked: What happens to the body minute by minute, hour by hour, when couples engage in hostile marital disputes? As expected, the couples who exhibited the most negative and hostile behavior during the conflict discussion showed the largest declines in immune-system function during the 24-hour study period. Published in 2005 in The Archives of General Psychiatry, the Glasers’ findings help explain epidemiological data showing that couples in troubled marriages appear to be more susceptible to illness than happier couples.

Other studies show that pervasive negativity in a marriage can erode heart health. Men and women respond differently to argument styles. Women experience more heart stress during arguments that lack warmth. Reassuring signals from their partner such as stray terms of endearment or a pat or hand squeeze can go a long way toward easing the the impact of martial strife.

For men, heart stress occurred during arguments where there is a battle for control, or the occurrence of controlling language, no matter which partner introduces it. The point: every marriage has conflict, learning to manage conflict in a thoughtful way can help protect the health of both partners.

A support marriage or relationship also affects how the brain handles stress. Holding hands or rubbing someones back during stress allows their brain to "outsource" some of the emotional regulation. This outsourcing allows electrical signals to by-pass the frontal cortex, relieving some of the wear and tear that stress exerts on the brain.

The bottom line: marriage does offer protective health benefits if the relationship is a good one. Staying in a chronically negative or volatile relationship is worse than being single. Divorce negates the marriage benefit, especially if partners are having difficulty coping. Being single but being in a supportive relationship also provides health benefits. Every relationship has areas of contention. Just remember when you're trying to work through a conflict to be nice to each other.

Posted by linda at April 19, 2010 8:44 AM

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