In Good Health: A Bad marriage is bad for you


In good health

by Michael Salamon
Issue of July 9, 2010/ 27 Tammuz, 5770
There is now solid evidence that a bad marriage can make you sick, or at least delay healing time if you get sick. It is not just an old wives tale but research supports the notion that a bad marriage may actually be making the partners sick and exacerbating physical illness, not just causing couples to be emotionally distraught, but physically sick as well. In a study recently published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, several couples were given a small blister on their skin with a vacuum device and studied for how they communicated and argued. After being followed for almost two weeks an interesting pattern developed in the couples. Partners with communicative styles judged by the researchers as negative to one another had the slowest rate of healing, while those judged to communicate positively with one another healed significantly more rapidly. But the researchers did not simply look at the healing rate of the blisters. They also measured certain blood hormone levels. Not surprisingly oxytocin, the “affiliative” or “cuddle” hormone as it is known to researchers, was higher in those with the more positive communication styles and calmer healthier marriages. While correlation is not causation, higher levels of circulating oxytocin often indicates that the individual has more positive, nurturing and emotionally rewarding social interactions. The hormone oxytocin is known to reduce stress, increase a sense of calmness and positive feelings; it lowers blood pressure and even reduces the sensations of pain. Oxytocin is secreted in higher rates in women just after they give birth. It is credited with helping them bond with their new born children. It is also among the hormones secreted when two people seem to be developing an emotional bond between one another. Not surprisingly, in marriages with a great deal of conflict partners are likely to have lower levels of oxytocin and higher levels of stress. Home stress is more insidious than any other form of stress. You can escape work stress when you go home. You can avoid social stress by staying away from the social settings that are stressful. You cannot avoid home stress - it’s always there when you get home. To keep healthy and calm and to ward off illness it is important to have a strong loving home life, but in too many marriages this is simply not the case. This home stress is a contributing variable in the divorce rate Even in the religious world the divorce rate is rapidly encroaching upon the secular rate. Given the rate of divorce it is safe to assume that many people have not allowed themselves the insight or the time to develop the proper relationship and therefore do not have the blessing of an affiliative relationship. This may be a too broad over-generalization but I think that a great deal of the reason for the divorce rate is due to a misunderstanding of the importance of emotions for developing relationships. In the secular world the emotional reaction is given a little too much significance, while in the religious world it is not given enough. There is a rush of hormonal reactions that occurs when people date someone they like. It can feel like an emotional high. The cause for this is an initial blast of the hormone dopamine. But dopamine is not like oxytocin.  Dopamine provides a high but that feeling does not last. Dopamine is implicated in motivation and pleasure but not in affiliation and emotional bonding. For a real relationship to develop the couple has to wait for the dopamine high to dissipate and the oxytocin feeling to develop. This could take some time.  And, this could very well be where the problem arises. From one perspective, there are those who believe that the dopamine rush will forever define their relationship so they see a relationship developing where only a high exists. They form committed relationships only to find after that it was just a rush, an emotional high with little or no true relationship feelings. They were chasing the high and nothing more. Others reject the feelings as irrelevant. We often hear people say things like “love will form later. If we are comfortable with each other that is enough.” Some have even told me that the entire concept of love “is a meaningless one.”  Exploring the feelings is not important to these individuals. But, we see that this too is an erroneous way to find and build a relationship. The most effective method to  overcome these diametrically different but very much related problems is to become more aware of the difference between lust and love and to allow love to actually develop before making the commitment to marry. Chasing the initial dopamine high makes for an addictive type of relationship, all emotional rush and no substance. Similarly, in the frum world the rush to marry within a set number of weeks or months or to know that the relationship is the correct one by the tenth date at the latest, is not only arbitrary but it also simply does not allow for a fair amount of time for the correct hormones, the oxytocin, to kick in. Either way, love does exist, it takes time to develop properly and if you do not take the time to let a relationship form you are adding to marital stress and just one more variable to the cause for divorce.

Dr. Salamon, a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, is the founder and director of the ADC Psychological Services in Hewlett, NY. His recent books include, The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures, and Every Pot Has a Cover: A Proven Guide to Finding, Keeping and Enhancing the Ideal Relationship.