In Sickness & in Health: Handling Conflict in Marriage and Relationships

Wedding cake topper

From the outside of the slowly spinning white fMRI scanning machine, she looked headless. One at a time, 16 different women laid down, each with the knowledge that if she saw a little red light, she might receive an electric shock to her foot or ankle, or she might not.

Sometimes her husband would be beside her to hold her hand, and sometimes she would hold a stranger’s hand. The understandable apprehension and fear she felt might lessen, or increase. Psychologist Jim Coan of the University of Virginia and researchers from the University of Wisconsin wanted to find out.

In this 2006 study, Coan found “the women received significantly more relief from their husband’s touch than from a stranger’s, and those in particularly close marriages were most deeply comforted by their husband’s hands,” according to a New York Times article, “Holding Loved One’s Hands Can Calm Jittery Neurons.” In other words, touch between close partners literally acted as a buffer against physical pain and stress.

But for those who were not very close to their partners, the apprehension shown in the stress centers of the participants’ brains did not noticeably change. For those couples, their relationship did not seem to help in lessening the stress experienced in the face of a physical threat or pain.

Dr. Dan Jenkins, director of PLNU’s M.A. in Clinical Counseling program, has seen this in his work with couples at the Center for Enriching Relationships in San Diego. “When I see people in my office with the deepest levels of stress in their marriage, that impacts them on multiple levels. It creates a sense of isolation. And it can destroy their sense of safety in the world.”

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For better or worse, the impact marriage and interpersonal relationships have on our lives overall is strong. They can exist as a safeguard from harm, or they can be life-threatening. Recent studies have sought to discover more about the role marriage plays in our long-term physical health and mortality, and more about the connection between our physical and emotional experiences. While we all know marriage and relationships can be difficult, how do we ensure our relationships are places of refuge and not spaces that cause greater harm overall? How do we ensure they are life-giving, pointing us to Christ’s unconditional and sacrificial love?

Is Marriage Healthy? 

There has long been a common belief that just being in a married relationship is good for our health. While there are many studies that prove this belief, there is also research that questions it in our society now.

In a 2017 study, “Does Marriage Protect Health? A Birth Cohort Comparison,” published in the journal Social Science Quarterly, researchers found over the past few years, the amount of health benefits marriage provides has been decreasing.

Dmitry Tumin, a sociologist from the Ohio State University College of Medicine, looked at different age groups to determine if married participants had become healthier over time than their unmarried counterparts. Tumin concluded the “protective effects of marriage had eroded over time.” The only married group that was indeed healthier were women from the oldest cohort (born between 1955 and 1964), who had been married for 10 or more years. Younger women did not experience that same protective effect.

While it’s impossible to know the exact reasons for these results, Tumin provided some factors that may be contributing to this decline — there’s less stigma around singleness now, which could lead to single people experiencing more mental and physical health, and family-work conflict is on the rise.

“The people who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

“Work-family conflict has increased in the closing decades of the 20th century, and spouses’ actual time spent together has decreased over this period,” Tumin wrote. “Against a backdrop of greater demands at home and at work, and less time spent together, today’s married couples may indeed experience marriage more as a source of conflict and stress than as a resource that safeguards their health.”

A common interpretation of this study is the idea that marriage itself is actually bad for our health. However, when you take into account the plethora of other studies that show the benefits of marriage over alternatives, that interpretation may be shortsighted.

In a study led by PLNU psychology professors Dr. John Wu and Dr. Kendra Oakes Mueller, it was found that marriage is in fact healthier than cohabitation. They studied a cohort of individuals who cohabited before their marriages, and found they were roughly five times more likely to get divorced than those who waited to be married before living together.

“Previous research shows that even if people were in low functioning marriages, except for highly abusive ones, poor marriages were still a strong protective buffer for children compared to divorced or cohabiting relationships. Marriage, while often criticized, has benefits for everyone involved,” Wu said.

While poor marriages may be better than divorce or cohabitation, how much is our health influenced by the quality of our relationships? In a separate study called the Harvard Study of Adult Development, dubbed one of the “world’s longest studies of adult life,” researchers collected data on the physical and mental health of a group of people over an 80-year period, beginning in 1938. They concluded that how happy people are in their marriages and interpersonal relationships has a powerful influence on their overall health.

“When we gathered together everything we knew about them about at age 50, it wasn’t their middle-age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old,” said the director of the study, psychiatrist and Harvard professor Robert Waldinger. “It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”

While the protective effects of marriage may be more apparent with some couples, without a doubt, both poor and good marriages impact health. It is the quality of marriages and relationships that has the most impact.

Emotional Safeness and Survival 

When we experience conflict in our marriages and relationships, the toll it takes on our physical health is noticeable. Neuroscience and psychology have proven that we in fact need emotional connection for our survival.

Dr. Sue Johnson, founding director of the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy and research professor at Alliant University in San Diego, opened up her critically acclaimed book, Hold Me Tight, by explaining this need.

“We now know that love is, in actuality, the pinnacle of evolution, the most compelling survival mechanism of the human species … Love is our bulwark, designed to provide emotional protection so we can cope with the ups and downs of existence … We need emotional attachments with a few irreplaceable others to be physically and mentally healthy — to survive.”

Because our need for emotional connection exists as a survival mechanism, when we feel our connection with someone close is somehow threatened, we enter into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

Johnson found a need for a new approach to couples’ therapy after recognizing that attachment theory (originating from the work of John Bowlby in the 1950s on the relationships between children and parents) could actually be applied to adult relationships. In her work with couples, she saw that adults look to their spouses or significant others in much the same way a child would look to a parent: for validation, and to provide a sense of safety and security.

Because our need for emotional connection exists as a survival mechanism, when we feel our connection with someone close is somehow threatened, we enter into fight, flight, or freeze mode in the amygdala or fear center of our brains. It is what Wu calls an “amygdala hijack.” It is this intrinsic need for emotional safeness in our interpersonal relationships that makes it so difficult to handle conflict well with loved ones.

“If I am speaking with my spouse, and she says something that triggers me, I lose my ability to talk and to listen right away,” said Wu. “This amygdala hijack directs my brain to look for something dangerous … It looks for a reason for why I’m feeling unsafe and says, ‘It must be you. You are the problem.’”

In conflict with loved ones, our bodies respond as though there is a physical threat. Wu has seen this often in his work as principal psychologist at Celebration Counseling, his counseling practice in San Diego. To calm our nervous systems, slow our heart rates, and realize we are safe (even if we don’t feel that way), he shares two main tactics. One is to have proactive pauses — if both partners recognize they’re at a high level of stress and anxiety, they can go away and take time to calm down first, letting their parasympathetic nervous systems return to normal and giving themselves a better shot at connection and understanding each other, then come back together to resolve the conflict. Other more researched and effective techniques come from Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), which addresses our attachment needs, and which Wu describes as seeing the relationship like a ballroom dance class.

The Dance of Relationships 

“The focus of EFT is on creating safety and bonding,” he said. “We may not say anything, but the focus is on learning to soothe one another. When we’re both activating each other, let’s take a moment to reassure one another. For example, one partner leans in to the other, puts a hand on his or her shoulder, and says, ‘We’re on the same page.’ Then, while the issue is still there, it’s not as scary or as seemingly threatening.”

A key part of the dance is each partner tuning into the other, and providing kindness and generosity — two key indicators of lasting marriages according to renowned psychologist John Gottman. In a 2014 article in The Atlantic called “Masters of Love,” there are two types of couples discussed from Gottman’s research: masters and disasters.

Gottman studied a group of newlyweds by hooking them up to electrodes and asking them about their relationships. As they interacted, the electrodes “measured the subjects’ blood flow, heart rates, and how much sweat they produced.” Six years later, the researchers followed up with the newlyweds to see if they were still married.

The article stated, “‘Disaster’ couples showed signs of being in fight-or-flight mode in their relationships. Having a conversation sitting next to their spouse was, to their bodies, like facing off with a saber-toothed tiger.” The ‘masters,’ however, showed signs of being emotionally and physically comfortable, displaying a sense of trust and intimacy with their partners, and they were also more likely to stay together after the six-year hiatus. Pressing further, Gottman found that while contempt is the number one factor that causes couples to separate, kindness and generosity connects partners and is “the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in marriage.”

By choosing to reassure our partner and soothe his or her anxiety in the midst of a difficult conflict, we choose to love sacrificially and for the sake of the person whose heart has been entrusted to us. 

Kindness can address the attachment needs we all have and look for in partners: to be validated, cared for, understood, and made to feel safe emotionally and physically. By offering a glass of water mid-fight, giving a handwritten note, or simply saying, ‘We’re on the same team,’ we reassure our partners of our love and care for them, and help to alleviate feelings of anxiety and stress.

By choosing to reassure our partner and soothe his or her anxiety in the midst of a difficult conflict, we choose to love sacrificially and for the sake of the person whose heart has been entrusted to us. It is this sacrificial love that requires continual grace, understanding, and kindness through practice and prayer over our lifetimes together. It is what alleviates feelings of isolation and loneliness.

As representations of our relationship with Christ and his sacrificial love, marriage and interpersonal relationships are gifts. They are filled daily with opportunities to love intimately, boldly, and courageously in movement with God and our partners. As we turn toward our partners and to God in love, our relationships have the potential to be life-giving and restorative, safeguarding us from harm and transforming our lives together.

A Career in Marriage and Family Therapy

If you are interested in helping navigate the relational and interpersonal dynamics within families, marriages, and couples, a career in marriage and family therapy is a great path. The first step into this specialized field is through earning your master's degree. At PLNU, we offer a Master's in Clinical Counseling which prepares students to become licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT). If you would like to learn more, please contact us or take the next step in your career and apply today.