As a psychotherapist in Atlanta is working with couples who are trying to reconnect in their marriages, I see an awful lot of stress.
One particular case that sticks in my mind is one couple where the husband had a heart attack. The couple came to therapy when he recovered to reduce the stress their constant bickering might be causing his heart.
We all have heard many times that stress is bad for health; but constant stressors can actually cause a continual state of nervous stress-hormone response, weakening the immune system. A recent study shows that stressful marriages can cause a higher mortality risk.
So in a simple sense; a bad marriage CAN kill you. What can be done to keep marital pressure from becoming fatal?
1. Start thinking "we" instead of "me".
A marriage is a teamwork where decisions are made together. Thinking of the other person's happiness is as important as your own. This does not mean that a spouse cannot participate in self-care or have interests of their own, but it does mean that your partner should always be considered in decisions.
2. Say "I'm sorry" and take responsibility for your actions.
In the 1970's movie, Love Story, Ryan O'Neal's character says to Ali McGraw's that "Love means never having to say you're sorry". Nothing could be further from the truth. If your behavior was unthoughtful, apologize.
3. Check your motivation and attitude for confrontation.
Will your words to your spouse help or hurt? Will your confrontation be loving or accusing? Approach your partner lovingly and with a goal to resolve a problem. Sometimes this might mean taking a time out when you are too angry to talk without hurting and accusing.
4. Be open to learning new skills for settling conflict.
One example that many couples in counseling hate at first is the "YOU" statement versus the "I" statement. The "YOU" message can focus on character instead of behavior and make your partner defensive. As an example saying, "You're always late! You don’t care about anyone but yourself!" is much different than "I feel frustrated when you don't call to let me know you're going to be late."
5. Ask yourself, do you want to be RIGHT or do you want to be HAPPY?
As a counselor, I have seen too many couples in fierce fights where they barely remember the original issue. However, the struggle to be the winner has become more important than understanding. Do not make winning more important than trying to understand how to make things better.
6. Be vulnerable.
Opening your heart to the one you love means showing them that you sometimes make bad decisions, show bad behaviors and even fail miserably at times. However, it is easier to forgive your partner for their imperfections if you accept and show your own.
Making or breaking relationships depends on how one handles conflict. You can be left with a life that is lonely or rich in love and social support. If using some of these simple tools is difficult in the case of extreme conflict, counseling and/or individual psychotherapy can be helpful. So, is your relationship going to KILL you? Likely not, but lowering your stress can be a start to a happier life.
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