Reacting to conflict in your marriage with anger may lead to high-blood pressure. Shutting down emotionally, or “stonewalling,” may lead to low back pain and aching muscles. That’s the conclusion of a recent study led by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
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In this 20-year study, couples were videotaped in a laboratory setting at five-year intervals. Expert observers rated spouses’ emotions as they talked about life events, disagreements and their joys. Spouses also completed detailed questionnaires for an assessment of their health problems.
Over the course of the study, spouses who were observed to become angry more easily were at greater risk of developing chest pain, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems. Among spouses who tended to stonewall their partner by clamming up and avoiding eye contact, muscle stiffness, aches, and joint pain were more common.
This isn’t the first time researchers have linked marital problems to people’s health outcomes. Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom found that people in satisfying marriages had stronger immunity to flu viruses. Happier couples also tend to have higher white blood cell counts, giving them a stronger defense against infectious diseases. A researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor counted a 35 percent higher risk of sickness among people in unhappy marriages.
While unresolved conflict and unhappiness plague many marriages, troubled marriages can often recover and achieve lasting happiness. John Gottman, whose research of couples has spanned over 30 years, has said, “working briefly on your marriage every day will do more for your health and longevity than working out at a health club.”
Consider including one of these exercises in your daily marriage work-out:
1) Discover something new about your spouse.
Use your curiosity to come up with one or two questions you’ve not asked your spouse before. Do you know their favorite love song? What their best memory from their childhood? What did they enjoy most about your courtship?
2) Express appreciation for something he or she did.
Keep an eye on your spouse and catch them doing something good or that makes you happy. When you’ve noticed something, make a big deal out of it and tell them what it meant to you.
3) Turn toward your spouse.
When communication breaks down in a marriage, it’s often because couples stop listening to each other. They might hear the words, but they don’t hear the underlying meaning. Listen intently when your spouse is talking to you, with your ears and eyes. Ask questions to clarify your understanding. Find ways you can respond to what they’re saying that affirm how they’re feeling, and offer encouragement.
4) Create a new ritual.
Couples who have certain things they repeatedly do for each other, or with each other, build strong bonds that give them the feeling that they belong together. Discover something new that you can do together that will be fun to repeat daily, like a six-second kiss goodnight, once a week, like a walk in the park, or once a year, like a weekend away from the kids.
A version of this post also appeared on LifeZette.com.