In praise of love — happy relationships officially make you healthier

Have you ever noticed two people who seem really, truly happy in the marriage always tend to have a bit more of a “glow”? It’s not just your imagination. Turns out that happier marriages lead to considerably better health in measurable ways, according to a recent study.

It’s easy to classify marriages as either “happy” or “unhappy,” but like many things in life, it’s much more complex than that. About 75% of marriages in the study were “ambivalent” unions — meaning that they’re not bad enough to leave, but still have negative attributes. These sorts of marriages don’t get the same benefits that truly happy — or, as the researchers dubbed them, supportive — marriages do, according to new research in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

“Sometimes we think of marriage as this ‘happily ever after’ where everything is bliss and happiness,” Brigham Young University psychology professor and lead author of the study Wendy Birmingham said in a release, “but the truth is, marriages contain varying levels of positivity and negativity.”

The study analyzed 94 couples — from ages 18 – 63, all child-free and without any other relative with them, so it was just the two of them — asking them about their spouse in terms of behavior and “interpersonal-functioning.” A quarter of these couples were genuinely happy, but the others were in ambivalent marriages — such as a woman who’s a great partner but not thrilled about her husband’s career, or a husband who’s a great person and lover but a very critical person, Birmingham told TIME. “There was a high level of positivity in the marriage, but there was also negativity,” Birmingham told TIME. “These are people who are committed to the marriage. There’s just a lot of negativity, which is negating the positive physiological benefits.”

The couples’ blood pressure was monitored every hour for a day while they were walking around and going about their day as normal. And here’s the kicker: Even when you accounted for age, other stresses, and many other factors, those in ambivalent marriages had considerably higher blood pressure than those in supportive marriages.

“For those who were in ambivalent couples, we found that they also reported lower levels of spousal responsiveness and disclosure, self-disclosure and intimacy,” Birmingham said in the release.  “This is important, as feelings of responsiveness and disclosure from one’s significant other allows one to feel validated and cared for. In fact, feeling invalidated is more detrimental to a relationship than feeling validated is beneficial.”

If you’d classify yourself as being in a truly happy relationship, congratulations on your excellent health. Hooray, love! And there’s good news for those who are more “ambivalent” — it doesn’t have to be permanent. By working together with your partner to share, listen, and support more, you can turn it around, says Birmingham. “There are certainly always options to increase the positivity within your marriage, especially things like spousal disclosure,” Birmingham said in the release. “If you’re seeing these ambivalent feelings and negativity, it’s time to improve.”

If you’re worried your relationship is in the “ambivalent” category, sit your partner down and have some real conversations about what is bothering each of you, and gently ask how you can improve that situation. It will be much better for the two of you, not only for your happiness, but your health.

(Image via Flickr Creative Commons.)

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