There’s a saying – happy wife, happy life. Well, it turns out that saying might be more like happy wife, healthy life, as research shows a happy marriage can lead to a healthier, longer life. Conversely an unhappy marriage can have negative consequences on your health like more colds, flu and higher risk of heart disease.
Lisa Lund, a licensed marriage and family therapist and certified rehabilitation counselor, shared insight into building healthy relationships and how doing so can improve your physical and emotional health.
As a Senior Certified Gottman Therapist and Master Trainer by the Gottman Institute, Lund counsels couples using the Gottman Method. The Gottman Method is based on Dr. John Gottman’s 40 years of scientific research on couples, marriage and parenting. Dr. Gottman’s research is world renowned, and the data generated offers a scientific look into relationships and how to make them better. Dr. Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Gottman currently run the Seattle-based Gottman Institute.
When it comes to how your relationships can affect your health, Lund said an unhappy marriage increases your likelihood of getting sick by about 35 percent and you can even shorten your lifespan by about four years.
“Part of the reason is that in an unhappy marriage people experience chronic diffuse physiological arousal – they are physically stressed and usually emotionally stressed as well,” Lund said. “This puts wear and tear on the body and mind.”
For example, fighting and yelling can create a physiological response in the body. Your heart rate races to over 100 beats per minute and your body starts secreting stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
“It’s like being in a constant state of emergency and worst of all, your partner isn’t available to soothe you,” Lund said. “That is very unhealthy emotionally and physically.”
On the flip side, a healthy marriage is very good for your health and can lower occurrences of pneumonia, heart attacks and even cancer.
In fact, Lund added that Gottman’s research “found a striking difference in the immune system response of the couples who were very satisfied with their marriage, and those whose emotional response to each other was neutral or unhappy.”
Lund said couples strong in three specific areas tend to be the most satisfied in their relationships.
Friendship: Seeing each other as friends, building strong friendships and staying friends throughout the years. This also means having positive interactions with one another on a daily basis.
Managed Conflict: Handling conflict in a gentle way and working to be less negative during arguments.
Shared Meaning: Building a sense of shared meaning and finding ways to honor one another’s dreams even when you don’t share them.
So how exactly do you accomplish those things?
First, it is important to note, Lund says fighting in a marriage doesn’t mean the relationship is doomed. Conflict is inevitable, so it’s essential to learn how to communicate effectively and manage conflict. Lund added that even if you fight a lot, relationships can be turned around with a little constructive work.
“It is really the small positive things done often that make a difference, “Lund said.
To start, Lund said Gottman’s research found a good friendship is the hallmark of successful and happy marriages. To build that friendship she suggested "asking open ended questions like ‘what did you enjoy about your day?’ or ‘how do you like your new responsibilities at work?”’
Showing interest and fondness for your partner through your words and actions is a behavior Lund calls “turning towards.” When your partner says something, acknowledge it, ask them a follow up question and stay engaged with each other.
To manage conflict and stay calm during arguments, Lund said couples need to combat what Dr. Gottman’s research determined are the “Four Horsemen”: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness and Stonewalling.
Criticisms are personal attacks. According to Lund, “when arguments start with a criticism, 97 percent of the time those conversations go south.”
Instead of criticizing your partner try using a soft-startup. Soft startups are about approaching your conversation from a friendly and polite place. Rather than accusing your partner and yelling at them, “complain without blame defensiveness,” Lund said.
She also recommends making “I” statements instead of “you” statement. For example, try “I feel overwhelmed when I have to do all the housework by myself,” instead of “you never help me with housework.” This will help your partner understand your needs, and can reduce defensiveness.
Defensiveness occurs when a person makes excuses and doesn’t accept responsibility during an argument. This can sometimes even include turning the tables on a partner and making the problem at hand their fault.
Instead of getting defensive, Lund recommends partners accept some responsibility for their contribution to the issue being raised. Then ask what actions they can take to help resolve the problem.
Contempt, Lund warned, is “the worst of the four horsemen since it comes from a mean place.” Contempt can include name-calling, mocking with sarcasm, eye rolling and other forms of treating your partner with disrespect.
“In whatever form, contempt is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust,” said Lund.
To combat contempt, Lund recommends couples “create a culture of appreciation.” This means letting your partner know when they do something good, or can even be as simple as telling them they look nice today. The idea is to build a back account of good experiences so you and your partner strengthen trust and friendship with each other.
If one or both people in an argument shut down and stop communicating, this is considered stonewalling. A physiological response including elevated heart rate and feeling frightened can precipitate stonewalling, so Lund suggests couples “practice physiological self-soothing.”
It’s important to communicate in this instance, so an example of self-soothing includes telling your partner you are walking away for 20 minutes and will revisit the conversation when you are less upset. Take a few deep breathes or read a book to distract yourself then when you have calmed down come back to the conversation.
Lund also recommends taking 20 minutes each day to discuss external, recent or upcoming stressors. Talk about issues that are outside the relationship like upcoming job deadlines and listen to each other without trying to problem solve or making suggestions. This helps build trust inside your relationship, and “these kinds of conversations are expansive and will generate many ideas,” Lund said.
She warned that engaging is criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling could cause couples to avoid conversing at all.
“We want to keep couples engaged with their differences in a way that helps them know each other better and helps them stay connected, whether they agree or not,” Lund said.
Building a happy marriage includes creating shared meaning and “supporting your partner’s dreams and aspirations even if you don’t share them,” Lund said.
For example, if you partner wants to climb a mountain but you are afraid of heights, you don’t need to physically climb the mountain to be supportive. Find other ways of showing your enthusiasm, maybe through buying mountain climbing equipment or asking your partner what excites them about the sport.
Finally, find shared interests and do things together as a couple.
“Almost any activity is healthy to do together if it is meaningful and enjoyable for both of you,” Lund said “Part of the fun is figuring out where you have common interests and how you can carve out time to honor them. This may involve learning together, playing together. Some couples, believe it or not, love to run errands together.”
Through building friendships, managing conflict and sharing meaning, Lund offers couples tools for building and sustaining happy marriages. While she acknowledges the work is not easy, it is doable. And remember, a happy marriage can not only help you live a happier life, but a healthier one too.
To learn more about Lisa Lund visit her website