Is your relationship killing you?
We know that relationships affect our health; many studies have shown this over many decades. What has emerged in the past few decades, however, is that relationships affect our health differently, depending on our gender.
In general, married men are healthier than unmarried men. They are less likely to have metabolic syndrome (which causes diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity), less likely to die young, and more likely to have healthy lifestyle habits like exercising regularly and eating well. Married women, on the other hand, showed no health advantage over unmarried women.
Further research showed something very interesting. Some women do experience health benefits from marriage – but only women in good marriages. Women who rate themselves as “very satisfied” in their marriage show the same improvement in health risk factors and death rates as men do. Scientists have pinpointed at least some of the reasons for the gender differences in the relationship effect.
One aspect of this imbalance is cultural – the expectation that women do the vast majority of the “emotional caretaking” for the relationship, and the simultaneous undervaluing of that work, or even denial that it needs to be done.
“Emotional caretaking” includes practical tasks, such as tracking appointments, being aware when things around the house are about to run out and need replacing, knowing the names and contact details of friends and family members, organising social get-togethers to maintain important relationships, remembering birthday and anniversaries, knowing people’s favourite foods and allergies, and so on. It also includes checking in regularly on the quality of relationships and taking regular small actions to let other people know they are important and loved.
Even consciously modern, equal, “feminist” partnerships can still fall into this cultural trap.
‘What about in so-called equal marriages? Nope, the wives still “tended to be the ones who monitored their own and their partners’ contributions to their relationships.” Even when the imbalance was duly acknowledged, nothing changed, “leading to feelings of resentment and frustration.”’ – Vicki Larson
Couples who share the emotional caretaking work more equally have more satisfying marriages, and the women are healthier as a result.
The second important factor in long-term health is the way men and women respond differently to physiological arousal or stress. When a conversation becomes stressful, men generally experience the physiological arousal as emotionally unpleasant. They “feel bad”, and their response is generally to want to escape the unpleasant situation. If they do leave the conversation, their physiology returns to normal relatively quickly, and they feel emotionally better as a result.
Women, on the other hand, experience emotions independently from physiological arousal. A woman may be physiologically calm, yet feel very unpleasant emotions, or she may be in a state of stress physiologically, and not experience any unpleasant emotional effects. Women may carry a permanent state of stress from the time they notice a problem until the time the problem is resolved – which can be days, weeks, or even years.
For this reason, women are more likely to want to continue conversations after they have become stressful to one or both partners.
If men stay in the stressful conversation, they often enter a state known as “stonewalling”, in which their system is flooded with adrenaline, their faces become unexpressive, and they are unable to connect with their empathy and compassion. As you can imagine, this does not usually lead to a productive, conflict-resolving conversation!
How to make your relationship a healthy one
- Choose a man who is willing to do an equal share of the emotional caretaking.
- Learn how to reduce physiological arousal as quickly as possible when it happens – for example, learn how to “let go” of unresolved issues until the time comes to resolve them.
- Support your partner in reducing their physiological arousal, even if that means putting the conversation on hold for a while. (Remember to let go of your stress while they are away letting go of theirs!)
- Learn to resolve conflict in low-stress conversations, instead of stressful ones. There are many useful communication processes to help couples talk about emotionally-charged topics in a way that both people feel safe, and stress levels remain low.
- Get outside support, as an individual or as a couple, if you find yourself feeling stressed or unloved on a regular basis in your relationship.
A healthy, supportive relationship is not just a fundamental human right; it can literally be a matter of life or death.
The Agama Healing Centre runs a weekly discussion circle on relationships, and relationship coaching is available in one-on-one, couple, and group sessions.