“Success in your romantic relationship affects every other area of your life.” Research has linked relationship stress and divorce to physical and mental health problems, parenting problems, occupational problems, financial problems and more. The state of your heart can literally affect your heart.
“Your love life is not neutral…” says the evidence-based relationship program Within My Reach, “Success in your romantic relationship affects every other area of your life.” Research has linked relationship stress and divorce to physical and mental health problems, parenting problems, occupational problems, financial problems and more. The state of your heart can literally affect your heart. Men who experience relationship deterioration are more likely to develop medical conditions and work issues; women are more likely to experience financial stress and general stress.
Over the past year, while some people have experienced social isolation due to quarantine and other restrictions, people in relationships have experienced a significant increase in conflict in their relationships. With more time together and other sources of stress impacting relationships, this conflict was inevitable. So, what is the solution? How can we take care of our “heart health”?
Assume positive intent. One of the warning signs of problems in a relationship is negative interpretations. This means that we assume the worst of our partner’s intentions. We hear their words or view their behaviors in a negative light. When they bring flowers home, we wonder “what do they want?” or “What did they do wrong?” We assume their behavior or words are intentionally meant to harm us instead of being careless or self-focused. In these trying times, assuming positive intent means we assume our partner is doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.
Pick your battles. Relationship researcher John Gottman has found that 70% of conflicts in marriage are unsolvable. These conflicts are due to differences in personality, values, or habits that will not change, meaning that conflicts will not be resolved…they must be worked around or coped with but will remain nonetheless. Recognizing this fact helps us pick our battles. Not every argument, not every behavior, not every mistake or offense is worth addressing. As emotions, stress, and reactivity have run even higher in recent days, there is a tendency to fight every battle. We have to ask ourselves how important is this issue? Is it critical to address? Can it be resolved or do I need to cope around it or let it go? One key strategy to walk away from conflict is taking a time out. This means intentionally separating from your partner for an established period of time during which you both work on decreasing anger and frustration using active coping. The most important feature of a time out is the time in, meaning you come back together to discuss the issue when emotions have settled.
Choose your words carefully. When emotions run high, our complaints tend to be worded as attacks. Other ineffective communication patterns that emerge are things like kitchen sinking, in which we add multiple problems or complaints from the past. Another ineffective pattern is the use of “always” or “never” language. When we complain and say someone always does something or never does something, we set ourselves up to “lose” if they can identify one exception to the problem. And in arguments with our loved ones, there is no winner. A better way to express a concern or complaint is to be behaviorally and situationally specific. We use the WXYZ method: W is what happened, X is when it happened, Y is how it made you feel, and Z is what you need. In this way, we make “I” statements, name how it impacted us, and are very concrete about what we need to move forward.
Listen more than you speak. We have all heard the expression that we have two ears and one mouth, meaning we should listen twice as much as we speak. Being a good listener means that we listen to understand, not to prepare a rebuttal or response. Active listening involves paraphrasing what we have heard so that our partner knows we have not only heard the words but understood them as well. We give our partner time and space to express their thoughts and feelings, using this active listening technique to check for understanding. Given that most conflicts are unsolvable and there are no winners in battles with our loved ones, our goal should be understanding, and that comes from using this type of listening.
Your love life is not neutral. Take care of your “heart health” with these strategies to strengthen important relationships and protect other areas of your well-being.
Dr. Becky Antle
Chief Medical Officer-BHI