By Poonam Sharma
A bad marriage or long-term relationship can have detrimental
effects on your health, while a good one can protect you from disease
and speed recovery. Sociologist Linda Waite, Ph.D., says, "Marriage
is sort of like a life preserver or a seat belt. We can put it exactly
in the same category as eating a good diet, getting exercise, and
John Gottman, Ph.D., a well-respected psychologist and marriage
researcher reports that an unhappy marriage can increase your chances
of becoming ill by 35% and take four years off your life! He believes
ï¿½working on your marriage every day will do more for your health
and longevity than working out at a health club".
The Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse
Although many of us believe that anger is the root cause of unhappy
relationships, Gottman notes that it is not conflict itself that
is the problem, but how we handle it. Venting anger constructively
can actually do wonders to clear the air and get a relationship
back in balance. However, conflict does become a problem when it
is characterized by the presence of what Gottman calls the ï¿½Four
Horsemen of the Apocalypse:ï¿½ criticism, contempt, defensiveness,
1. Criticism. Criticism involves attacking your
partnerï¿½s personality or character, rather than focusing on the
specific behavior that bothers you. It is healthy to air disagreements,
but not to attack your spouseï¿½s personality or character in the
process. This is the difference between saying, ï¿½Iï¿½m upset that
you didnï¿½t take out the trashï¿½ and saying, ï¿½I canï¿½t believe you
didnï¿½t take out the trash. Youï¿½re just so irresponsible.ï¿½ In general,
women are more likely to pull this horseman into conflict.
2. Contempt. Contempt is one step up from criticism
and involves tearing down or being insulting toward your partner.
Contempt is an open sign of disrespect. Examples of contempt include:
putting down your spouse, rolling your eyes or sneering, or tearing
down the other person with so-called ï¿½humor.ï¿½
3. Defensiveness. Adopting a defensive stance
in the middle of conflict may be a natural response, but does not
help the relationship. When a person is defensive, he or she often
experiences a great deal of tension and has difficulty tuning into
what is being said. Denying responsibility, making excuses, or meeting
one complaint with another are all examples of defensiveness.
4. Stonewalling. People who stonewall simply
refuse to respond. Occasional stonewalling can be healthy, but as
a typical way of interacting, stonewalling during conflict can be
destructive to the marriage. When you stonewall on a regular basis,
you are pulling yourself out of the marriage, rather than working
out your problems. Men tend to engage in stonewalling much more
often than women do.
All couples will engage in these types of behaviors at some point
in their marriage, but when the four horsemen take permanent residence,
the relationship has a high likelihood of failing. In fact, Gottmanï¿½s
research reveals that the chronic presence of these four factors
in a relationship can be used to predict, with over 80% accuracy,
which couples will eventually divorce. When attempts to repair the
damage done by these horsemen are met with repeated rejection, Gottman
says there is over a 90% chance the relationship will end in divorce.
Tips for Improving
Your Marriage and Your Health
Given that having a strong marriage is such an important key
to staying healthy and happy, it makes sense to direct energy into
making your relationship the best that it can be. The investment
will truly be worth it. Below are some tips for making your relationship
a much healthier one:
1. Nurture your friendship. Do you know your
spouseï¿½s likes and dislikes, dreams, worries, fears and hopes? Do
you know in detail what your spouse did all day yesterday? Do you
know what types of pressures he or she faces at work? The basis
of a good marriage is a solid friendship. If a marriage is not built
on a strong friendship, it may be difficult to stay connected over
time. Make sure you take some time each day to confide in one another.
During these times, make it a priority to listen and learn about
your partnerï¿½s thoughts, feelings, and ideas.
2. Actively take steps to foster your liking
and admiration for your partner. Gottman says this is the antidote
to contempt. Remember your partner's good qualities. Why were
you attracted to your spouse in the first place? What did you originally
love or admire about your partner? By nurturing your fondness for
your spouse, you can foster a much more positive attitude toward
him or her.
3. Always behave respectfully toward your spouse.
In relationships that deteriorate over time, respect becomes increasingly
absent. Sadly, sometimes people end up treating their spouses worse
than they would ever treat a complete stranger. By tolerating or
engaging in disrespectful behavior, you actively contribute to the
demise of your relationship. Do you ever call your spouse names?
Do you ever berate your partner in front of your friends or family?
Do you consider how your spouse will be affected by your cruel comments
or actions? Take stock of ways you or your spouse may cross the
line of respect. Remember that without respect, love cannot survive.
4. Accept and validate your partner. Recognize
how much power you have to build up your spouse up or tear him or
her down. You can help make your relationship a safe haven or hell
on earth. Remember, everyone needs to feel accepted for who they
are as a human being. Instead of attacking your spouse, try to understand
his or her point of view. Also, compliment your spouse for ways
he or she supports you and your relationship. Itï¿½s easy to get so
focused on what is wrong in a relationship that you miss what is
5. Forgive one another. When your partner genuinely
reaches out to ask for forgiveness, do not turn away. Hurt feelings
and conflict are inevitable at times. When attempts to repair this
hurt are repeatedly rejected, the relationship takes a hit. You
may need time to let go of a grudge, bitterness, or feelings of
hurt, but donï¿½t close the door completely on your partnerï¿½s attempts
to make things better. Reach deep inside and work on healing together.
6. Calm down. When conflict escalates, people
can become ï¿½floodedï¿½ by strong emotions, leading to physical distress,
stonewalling and defensiveness. Take a few deep breaths or call
a time out. Most people need about 20 minutes to actually calm their
bodies down. Take the time and come back to the issues at hand when
you can actually listen to what the other person is saying without
7. Let your partner influence you. In general,
men are less likely to look for common ground with their wives.
Gottman notes "When a man is not willing to share power with
his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.ï¿½
Remember that good marriages involve give and take. You are on the
same team and need to work together for the sake of your relationship.
8. Warm up your relationship. Keep your relationship
healthy by ensuring that there are at least five positive interactions
for every negative one. Gottmanï¿½s research has identified that a
5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative ones is linked to
the stability of a marriage, no matter what your typical style of
resolving conflict. If there is too much negativity, the relationship
9. Learn to let some things go. Although your
spouse may do things that drive you crazy, remember you can cope.
It is not worth it to struggle over every little thing. Solve the
problems that are solvable and let the others go. You must learn
to pick your battles carefully.
10. Donï¿½t forget to work on yourself. A relationship
is just like a dance. You move in unison to create something that
is truly unique. What type of partner are you? Do you work with
your partner or pull hard in another direction? Do you step on her
toes? Do you gaze in his eyes or focus only on your next steps?
Remember you control 50% of what happens in your relationship. Be
sure you are a good partner.
Poonam Sharma, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and life
coach in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Sharma helps people improve
their health, find balance in their lives, and achieve their
most important personal and professional goals. Poonam Sharma,
Ph.D. may be contacted at