Nov 12, 2015

Dr. Jones: A good marriage makes people healthier. We know that. An abusive marriage is bad for your health, but what if you have good days and bad days and so-so days in your marriage? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Utah Health Care, and we're talking about marriage and your health on The Scope.

Announcer: Covering all aspects of women's health, this is the Seven Domains of Women's Health with Dr. Kirtly Jones on The Scope.

Dr. Jones: Marriage is a good thing for committed couples, right? Well, whatever your feelings about the institution of marriage, there is substantial research about what's called "the marriage benefit." Now this isn't a tax benefit. This is a psychological and health benefit. People, particularly men, are healthier when they're married, and they live longer. The marriage benefit in terms of longevity is somewhat less powerful for women, but it's still there. Now, these studies are pretty easy to do. You look up birth and death records and find out how long people lived, delete the people who died too early to get married, and find out whether the person being studied was married or not, and that's how you do the longevity part.

But there is research that gives some insight into the marriage benefit. A person in an MRI who is holding the hand of a beloved, trusted spouse has their brain and their blood pressure calm down, and holding the hand of a beloved, trusted spouse works as well for pain as moderate painkillers. But what if the spouse isn't beloved or trusted, or maybe just not today?.

The behavioral research group at BYU made national news in the New York Times by their study titled, are you ready? "It's Complicated: Marital Ambivalence on Ambulatory Blood Pressure and Daily Interpersonal Functioning." This study wasn't about marriages that go from loving to abusive, but more about the feeling that your partner is unpredictable in levels of support or negativity. They studied 94 heterosexual couples in our own Salt Lake City with questionnaires about how regularly they felt supported and championed by their spouse and how reliably they supported and championed their spouse..

These folks were heroic research participants. They wore a blood pressure monitor throughout the day, had their blood pressures measured twice an hour for a day, and they had to take a brief questionnaire minutes after their blood pressure was taken to find out what they were doing and how they were interacting with their spouse. These were couples who either didn't have kids or whose kids had left the home, probably because it only takes one cranky teenager to upset the blood pressure applecart. The couples had been married for an average of 5 years from 1 to 41 years..

Twenty-three percent of the couples were in supportive marriages with low levels of negativity. Seventy-seven percent gave mixed responses. That's good and bad news. Good because mixed is normal, bad because the people in a marriage that had levels of negativity, that snarky comment you directed at your spouse, had higher levels of blood pressure readings than those who were supportive..

We don't know if that means these couples will die sooner or get sicker or get divorced, but it does mean that unpredictable or ambivalent support from your spouse isn't good for you. All of us who have been on the receiving end of that snarky comment from a friend, spouse, or loved one know that it doesn't feel good. By the way, the Oxford Dictionary defines "snarky" as "of a person, words, or mood which is sharply critical, cutting or snide." So this study adds to the research about supportive relationships. The University of Utah found that being in a marriage with a cold and controlling argument was as predictive of poor heart health as smoking or having high cholesterol..

Another study found that wounds healed more slowly in a person in a relationship that has hostile arguments compared to couples who solve their problems more equitably. So what do you do? There's an old nursery rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Well, that may work on the playground as a comeback, but it isn't really true. Being occasionally snarky and unsupportive to your partner is common, but it's a choice and it can become a habit..

Try this little three-card exercise. You and your partner fill in the blank on the following sentences, one on each card. One: I feel loved and supported when you (blank); two: I feel hurt and sad when you do (blank); three: I wish you would do (blank). Exchange the cards. Have a conversation. It takes a healthy relationship to do this exercise, but it can be the beginning of a dialog about both of you and how to be kinder and more supportive in your relationship..

If it's too threatening to do this little exercise, then your relationship may need someone to help you work through this. Your home should be a safe place, but even more, it should be an emotional shelter from life's storms, and giving or receiving snarky comments in the kitchen isn't good for the receiver or the giver. We should work on being kinder. Thank you for joining us on The Scope.

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