Relationships and Health
by Jhon Wlaschin

So we are beginning to get a feel for the science of how marriage can impart heath benefits to people. Having a partner who pays attention and nudges us toward health and away from risky behaviors. It is also quite clear that simply being married is not enough to make a person healthier. Much of the benefit comes from quality partnerships and contentious relationships likely add stress, undermining a proximal source of comfort and corrode our health making us much more likely to get sick.
Mob Wives from VH1
One topic that came up is interpersonal communication and conflict. Every relationship experiences conflict at various times. What matters is how you deal with these moments. Do you fight back, become defensive, hurl insults or try and prove you are right, to "win" the argument? Is there a regular dynamic of demand and withdrawal that happens with your partner each time a difficult subject comes up?

Most of us are clueless with how to navigate through these moments. They are emotionally volatile and we naturally want to protect ourselves from harm. But in so doing we often do harm to the one relationship that we need the most to maintain health and happiness.

So what to do?

I have been married a long time to a woman who likes to be combative. I like strong women and Betsey can be very tough. Its no wonder her favorite TV show is Mob Wives. Over the last 20 years we have learned how to prevent arguments from spiraling out of control (most of the time).  has devoted his career to exploring how married couples communicate and has identified a number of warning signs that reliable predict when a relationship is in trouble. He has famously dubbed them "

We know that the style of arguing in a marriage is strong predictor of cardiovascular health. Whether you and your partner have a hostile or a warm style of arguing can have implications for your health just as high cholesterol or smoking can take quality years from your life. 

We all know hostile,  "What's with the checkbook, did you fail 4th grade math?" 

Insulting your partner rarely makes for good conversation. At best you will make your partner defensive and less willing to comply with your needs and concerns. 

A growing body of research that has discovered that partner affirmation helps to reduce defensiveness. By first affirming something positive about your partner before launching into an argument can diffuse much hostility and defensiveness. This is what is meant by a warm style of arguing.

 "You know, you are great with the kids but it would make me less upset if you could be  on time more often."

Much can be learned about this kinder and respectful approach to conflict from  Not only do same sex couples tend to begin and maintain a more positive tone during disagreements than hetero couples but they are less likely to use the demand withdrawal style and are more likely to suggest possible solutions and compromises. Gottman speculates that gay couples value equality more and have fewer differences in power and status between them. This style of communication seeks a win-win solution rather than a win-loose.

Betsey and I just had a bit of a spat on our morning walk today. What works for us is first to try and acknowledge each other's feelings rather than question them. Providing a space to have negative feelings that need resolution. If it seems like things are getting too heated we take a break, (usually I go for an extended walk). Then when it's time to try again, two things usually always work to broker a truce, using humor to mock how ridiculous our disagreement is in the big picture and extending a hand to touch and caress in an affectionate way.

If Jim Coan's research is correct, this might be one of our most effective tools for defusing stress and renewing the warmth and comfort we need from our partner.