Marriage and The Immune System: Toxicity in the Coupledom

Married Healthy or Married Sick? Over the decades scientific research has suggested that marriage may provide benefits for longevity and health. However, now that researchers have refined their techniques to measure “health” and “stress” in more nuanced forms, the quality of the “marriage” as anyone in a marriage knows, casts vast shades of difference over what is “healthy” for the individuals and what in fact,  may be harmful.

Tara Parker-Pope’s April 18th New York Times magazine article “Is Marriage Good For Your Health? provides some clues to the makeup of  a healthy marriage.  Ms. Parker-Pope reviews research by Ohio State University College of Medicine’s Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, on the relationship between marriage and health. Glaser and Kiecolt-Glaser fell in love and married before embarking on their research. In the pursuit of collaboration, surely a cornerstone to any good relationship, they found a way to combine their areas of expertise, she in clinical psychology and he in viral immunology, by investigating the immune system during times of marital strife. Selected participants with “healthy marriages” were invited to discuss typical topics of conflict, housework, sex, mothers in-law, while hooked up to tubes to draw blood samples. The results, measured by the amount of immune fighting blood cells, revealed that couples who “exhibited the most negative and hostile behavior during conflict discussion had the largest declines in immune-system functioning during the 24-hour study period.” In the follow-up phase, the researchers examined the rate of healing of minor blisters inflicted on the study candidates to measure the impact of strife on the immune system. The results strongly indicated a correlation between the way couples fought and how quickly their immune systems responded to healing blisters.

The Toxic You: Any couples therapist can attest to the toxic atmosphere that some couples give off in marital therapy. Most couples have conflict. But some couples have toxic conflict where the “way they fight” is characterized by an exchange of poisoned pellets aimed at the self-esteem or  self-worth of the partner. Name calling, not just four letter words, but razor edged descriptions such as “selfish”, “mean”,”liar”, and the ubiquitous “YOU” roll off the tongue.  The finger pointing YOU adds a dramatic punctuation to this lethal dance attended by vivid descriptions of partners behaviors ranging from affairs to forgetting to put the milk back in the fridge. Hate laced tones are often indiscriminately applied whether for a minor infraction or one bordering on murder. This is the Toxic You. Yes, it is true that under the layers of tone look and word (see previous post), there is pain; but how that pain is conveyed is the dividing line between toxic strife and strife that doesn’t poison.

The You Leaves Out The “I”: The missing piece is what the I person, the accuser, is feeling when they hurl the YOU phrases of accusation at their partner. Scathing attacks on the YOU person only leads to scathing attacks back or attempts at withdrawal/escape. Whether one partner leaves the house, shuts down, or tosses out a few of their own poisoned pellets in return, the Coupledom, that third entity, the domicile of the relationship, has lost the battle for sure.  The “I” of the couple, what each member really feels inside is squashed and all that remains is the vapor of poison floating in the air, like a bad stench from the treatment plant around the corner.

Strangers in the Trenches: How do couples become enemies at war, entrenched in a singular view of the conflict at hand, and strangers to each others’ heart and mind? Language separates us from the “animals” but not nearly enough. We know animals often settle conflict between species in a fight flight mode of operation. PBS’ “Nature” is replete with bloody examples of the fight for territory, mates and food that end in eat or be eaten with the remains left to the vultures, like the local tabloids, always delighted to clean up the mess. But humans have the use of words as well as the flight fight mode. Choosing the “You” word is a fight flight mode of communication. Choosing the “I” word reaches a higher level of brain evolution. Listening to Feelings is also a highly evolved human ability that allows something more humane to occur when couples conflict.

How to Listen and to Speak in the I: “I feel when you leave stuff out in the kitchen, that you don’t care about me, how hard I work at trying to keep this house under control. It hurts my feelings and makes me feel invisible”. ” I feel that you don’t really like me because time is never set aside for us do stuff together. What can I do?” ” I feel that you think little of my work because when I tell you my hours, you laugh as if this is fun for me.That feels demeaning and hurtful.” ” I feel that I am being called a liar because you just don’t seem to believe me when I tell you what I think about something.” “I feel like all I am good for is to earn money. And so if I am not doing that well, then I am not worth much.” “I feel like if I don’t agree with you on everything, that you will get mad at me. That scares me.” “It hurts me to think that we have so little in common. That is why I can become insulting about your interests. I am really scared that someday we will no longer have anything to say to each other.”

CAN YOU LISTEN? Listen! JUST LISTEN. AND PONDER (Wow, I never knew that she/he felt that way). OK. Now what? Here’s the challenge. Can listening to how your partner experiences your behaviors serve a purpose? Yes. Without rushing in to defend, this kinder closer look at emotions can offer something other than toxic conflict. It can offer understanding. Perhaps there are other explanations for leaving the milk out or even having an affair. Only with time, talking and listening can healing and change occur.  Fighting with the “TOXIC YOU” pumps the adrenalin, stresses out the immune system, and leads to more than unhealed blisters. It leads to the detritus and waste of what was once a mutual love in a big pile in the backyard of a marriage gone bad.

A Strife Torn Coupledom:  Few marriages are an island unto themselves. Usually there are witnesses and/or victims. The immune system is a witness and can be a victim of an adrenaline pumping fight-flight Coupledom. Couples who fight each conflict as a life or death battle are giving their immune systems a beating too.  Manifested either in emotional illness; depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive or eating disorders, or recurrent physical illnesses, these are not healthy outcomes.

Inquiring, not Firing! This can be the motto of Choice that will make all the difference between healthy conflict and carnage. If you need help to move to a better way of disagreeing, don’t hesitate. Call in an expert.

You don’t want to be that house in the neighborhood that burned down awhile ago and now is marked only by the remains of what was once a happy home; charred two by fours framing the space formerly known as the “family room”.

©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010

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