Observe Yourself l May/June 2016

“My friend Caroline is driving me crazy,” your partner reports, exasperated. “She keeps pushing me to go shopping again, but I don’t have her endless energy for that.” Quickly, you’re poised to suggest a way she can beg off on her friend’s invitation. But before the words come out of your mouth, you notice you’re about to give advice. You notice that familiar impulse to help and solve and suggest … and you remember her telling you that she doesn’t want advice all the time — she wants simple listening. Because you noticed your impulse, you’re able to slow down and take another path. You won’t slip into being Mr. Fixit.

“I don’t want to visit your parents this summer,” your partner announces. “We saw them twice already this year, and you know how difficult your mother can be.” You’re ready to point out that the two of you visit his parents a lot more often than your parents. But before you open your mouth, you notice your body tightening, and the feeling of irritation … familiar signs of defensiveness. Because you noticed all that, you slow down and say only “tell me more,” deferring comments until later. You’ve learned that conversations rarely go well when you become defensive.

Noticing what’s stirring within us — observing ourselves before we open our mouths — allows us to sidestep our automatic and quick reactions that can get us into trouble. Noticing is the logical brain at work, and the best way to keep the emotional brain from hijacking the moment (see Two Brains, April/May 2014).

One of the greatest gifts we can give our partner — and ourselves — is being fully present in conversations. Being fully present requires that we prevent our own thoughts and feelings from getting in the way of our best listening (see How to “Get It,” April 2015). It begins by noticing our thoughts and feelings as they stir within us (see The Mind’s Traffic, Sept/Oct 2015). Noticing gives us the power to handle our quick reactions wisely: to think about where those reactions are coming from, and to set them aside until the proper moment, at least — if we find ourselves worked up — until we’ve “cooled off.”

Learning to observe ourselves requires practice — lots of it. But when the payoff is less bickering and fewer fights, you’re sure to find the practice well worth the investment.

Marriage and the Heart l February/March 2016

Marriage has earned a reputation for offering health advantages: longer and happier lives, fewer medical challenges. But “it’s not the case that any marriage is better than none.”i Some studies have found better health among divorced or single people as compared to spouses in high conflict/high stress marriages. In fact, unhappy marriages have been associated with high blood pressure, suppressed immune response, obesity, and the leading killer of Americans: heart disease.

Researchers at Michigan State University looked at data from 1,200 married men and women between 57 and 85 years of age. Relationships in which one spouse regularly criticizes or makes demands were associated with a greater risk of heart disease in the other spouse. The effect was stronger for older couples, and the health risk greater for the female rather than male partner.ii

These 2014 data affirm an earlier study in which women reporting moderate to severe marital strain and with a history of cardiac trouble were found to be 2.9 times more likely to subsequently need heart surgery, suffer heart attacks, or die of heart disease when compared to women with similar cardiac histories but in low-stress marriages.iii

How to understand the connection between hearth health and marital strain? Perhaps repeated exposure to stress hormones like cortisol (which increases blood pressure) and adrenaline (which increases heart rate and blood pressure) gradually undermine heart function. With the body more vulnerable as we age — we’re frailer and immune function is less robust — marital stress may stimulate more intense cardiovascular responses. And because women tend to internalize negative feelings more than men — carrying around the painful emotions triggered by moments of marital discord — their hearts may pay a greater price for the toll that accumulates over time.

It makes sense then, from a heart-healthy perspective, for all couples — younger as well as older — to do what they can to learn the skills that contribute to marital harmony and effective problem solving … before cardiac problems develop. Maybe communication and conflict-resolution skills are as important as diet and exercise for promoting cardiac wellness. (See Argue Kindly, May 2010; Your Start-up, September 2010; Husbands: Warm It Up, January 2012; Complain Skillfully, September 2012).

If moderate to severe marital strain is a regular feature of your relationship, marriage counseling might be a very effective medicine.

i Umberson, D. et al. “You make me sick: marital quality and health over the life course.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2006 March 47(1):1-16.

ii Liu, H. and L. Waite. “Bad marriage, broken heart? Age and gender differences in the link between marital quality and cardiovascular risks among older adults.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2014 December 55: 403-423,doi:10.1177/0022146514556893

ii http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=193378

Thank You l January 2016

Small gestures can sometimes deliver big results.

Researchers at the University of Georgia studied nearly 500 married couples to investigate the connection between financial well being and the quality of the relationshipi. They wondered what the impact would be on a marriage when a couple faces tough economic times. While it was expected that financial distress would inevitably challenge any relationship and perhaps reduce the spouses’ level of marital satisfaction, the research found one thing that served as a kind of buffer, minimizing the negative impact: the expression of gratitude. Couples who made it a habit to regularly say thank you to one another were less harmed by any number of conventional marital stressors, including financial problems.

“Spousal gratitude,” wrote the authors, “promotes and protects marital quality.”

Other studies have found a similar effect. Some researchers have speculated about “a cycle of generosity” that enables relationships to thrive: spouses who report feeling more appreciated by their partners — hearing thank you on a regular basis — report being more appreciative of those partners, and in turn more inclined to be sensitive and responsive to those partners’ needs. ii

Once relationships pass through the early honeymoon and romance phase, it’s easy for us to take for granted the qualities in a partner that we appreciated early on. We can forget what once seemed special, focusing instead on traits and behaviors we now find annoying and unattractive. One way to check the inevitability of acclimating to (and taking for granted) our partner’s positive traits is by cultivating the habit of voicing appreciation, especially for the small things he or she does, like putting away the groceries, shoveling the walk, folding the laundry, checking the air in the tires, bringing in the morning paper. Expressing gratitude by offering a sincere and heartfelt thank you seem too small to matter, but small gestures can indeed deliver big results.

i Barton, A.W., Futris, T. G. and Nielsen, R. B. (2015), “Linking financial distress to marital quality: The intermediary roles of demand/withdraw and spousal gratitude expressions.” Personal Relationships, 22: 536–549. doi: 10.1111/pere.12094

ii Gordon, A. M., Impett, E. A., Kogan, A., Oveis, C., & Keltner, D. (2012, May 28). “To Have and to Hold: Gratitude Promotes Relationship Maintenance in Intimate Bonds.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1037/a0028723