Keys to health in marriage

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Do married people really live longer? Or, as the old joke goes, does it just seem that way?

As it turns out, marriage does seem to expand our talent for hanging around on this earthly plane a bit longer.

The health perks of marriage are well documented. After conducting a huge study on the married species, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that "married persons were healthier for nearly every measure of health."

The domesticated male does better just having that ring on his finger (although he tends to be overweight). Women, however, need to be happy in their marriage in order to realize health benefits. Dissatisfied married women were three times at greater risk of having metabolic syndrome, a distressing group of symptoms that increases their risk for heart disease.

Clearly, it is in the best interest of married folks to make things right at home. So let's review what factors increase our chance for marital misfortune:

* A pattern of communication that is negative, not oriented to problem solving, marked by withdrawal, defensiveness and invalidation.

* Relationships where there is a higher ratio of hostility to warmth, dissimilar attitudes and separate checkbooks.

* Problems related to family and friends, sex and how to spend leisure time.

* Married partners who become "physiologically aroused" during arguments or who are "neurotic."

* Couples who have different levels of education, different religious affiliations, previous divorces or who knew each other a short time before marriage.

* And -- no surprise -- dissatisfaction with your partner's personality or habits.

OK, so some of these risk factors can't be avoided. Should we just accept them and accept a teeth-clenching, health-compromised life where our only enjoyment comes from relating to old Rodney Dangerfield routines?

I think not. Too much is at stake, and when that is the case, further investment is always a good idea.

Here are three "dynamic relationship factors" (ones that can be changed with effort) that married couples should dedicate themselves to working on:

* Communication styles when there is disagreement and conflict. Learn to emphasize the positive in conflict resolution. Avoid aggressive attacks, stonewalling or rapid emotional escalations. Always remember that you are on the same team, and when one person on that team has a problem, the team has a problem and needs to find a solution.

* Learn to discuss openly and respect differences. Assess whether either of you have unrealistic beliefs about marriage or relationships. Face into any differences you may have about important issues impacting your life -- family and social relationships, religion, politics finances, ethics. Learn to understand your partner's point of view, and find intersections comprehension.

* Analyze your level of commitment to the relationship. Do you see your marriage as a long-term "investment"? Do you sufficiently guard and protect that investment? For example, do you make sure you avoid compromising situations ... like taking naps with the "desperate housewife" next door?

Marriage -- as anyone who has survived its many sweet and sour moments can attest -- is a challenge. Sometimes, all it really requires is getting back to basics like communication, respect and commitment.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh, a Cape Girardeau native, is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Santa Barbara, Calif. Contact him at mseabaugh@semissourian.com.

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