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ReducingtheAmbivalenceinYourMixedBagMarriage

WhenMelissa(namechanged)marriedinthetempletwodecadesago,shedidntforesee
thatnegativesinhermarriagewouldcomesoclosetooutweighingpositives.Her
husbandstrugglestofeelempathyforothers,includingandcanbeharshwiththeir
children.Atthesametime,heisahardworker,andprovidessecurityforthefamily,and
canbesupportiveattimes,andisaffectionateattimes.Butthepriceforstayinginthe
marriage?ishigh.
IdontsharemythoughtsandfeelingswithmyspousebecauseIdontknow
whetherIwillbemetwithsupportordismissal.Thishasledtoincreasedanxietyand
evenobsessivecompulsivebehaviorasItrytocontrolwhatfeelslikeanuncontrollable
environment,saysMelissa.
ResearcherWendyBirminghamcallsMelissassituationanambivalent
marriage,onewheremanythingsareworkingwellbutenougharentthatthepositives
dontoutweighthenegativescansometimesfeelcancelledout.BirminghamShe
specializesinstudyingthehealthbenefitsanddeficitsofmarriage,andshesfoundthat
peoplelikeMelissatendtohavehigherbloodpressure,whichcancompromiseheart
healthovertime.
Evenminorelevationsinbloodpressurestrainsthecardiovascularsystem,and
elevatedbloodpressureincreasestheriskoffuturecardiovasculardisorders,says
BirminghamsassistantprofessorofpsychologyandleadauthorofarecentarticleinThe
AnnalsofBehavioralMedicine.Ourstudyshowedthatmenandwomenwhoexperience

theirmarriageasambivalenthavesignificantlyhigherbloodpressurethanthosewho
dont.
Birminghamsstudiesshowoverallthatmarriageishealthyandbeneficial
overall,butthequalityofthemarriagematters.Justbeingmarriedpersedoesntconfer
allthepossiblebenefitsanditcanincludenegativestothepointthatsomepeople
wouldbebetteroffsingle.SheandSchoolofFamilyLifeprofessordmarriageeducator
StephenDuncansuggestcouplesascertainwhethertheyhaveanambivalentmarriageand
ifso,takestepstoreducethenegatives.

IdentifyingAmbivalence
Everymarriageisambivalenttosomedegree,saysDuncan,professorintheSchoolof
FamilyLife.Mostmarriagesdonthavesomanynegativesthattheyoverridethe
positives,butthenegativesareneverthelessrealandshouldbeaddressed:Seeingthe
negativesisgoodbecausetheypointyoutoareasthatneedchange.Everycoupleshould
inventorytheirmarriageregularlyandagreeonwaystoimproveonwhatsnotworking,
saysDuncan.
Whenassessingarelationship,couplesshouldlookfortwoofthemostpowerful
marriageerodersfirst,negativeinteractions,andsecond,unrealisticorunmetexpressed
expectations.
1. NegativeInteractions.
Toxicingredientsthatcanslowlybutsurelypoisonamarriageifnotaddressed
includecCriticism,stonewalling(thesilenttreatment),defensiveness,andcontemptare

toxicingredientsthatcanslowlybutsurelypoisonamarriageiftheyremainunaddressed.
ResearcherJohnGottmanfoundthatittakesaboutfivepositiveinteractionstooverride
thedamageofonenegativeinteraction.Coupleswhohavepositivesinthat5to1ratio
tendtohavebetterlongtermstabilityandlongtermmaritalhappiness.Ifinteractions
aremoreheavilyweightedtowardthenegative,theGottmanmodelsuggeststhatthose
relationships,unlessmodifiedtobemorepositive,canbeheadedintimetowardself
destruction,saysDuncan.

2.UnmetExpectations.
Expectationsaretricky,saysDuncan,becauseoftenpeopleeitherarenotfully
awarethattheyhaveofexpectationstheirexpectationsand/ortheydontexpressthem,
assumingthattheirspousealreadyunderstandsthem.Fulfillmentofexpectations
determinesisahugepartofwhetheramarriagebuildsinstrengthenssovertimeor
weakensovertime.Spousesneedtoidentifytheirexpectations,evaluatewhichonesare
unrealisticorunreasonable,andbringoutintothelightthosethatarehiddenor
unspoken,hesays.Evenifspousesareindividuallyawareoftheirexpectationsand
thoseexpectationsareheyrereasonable,iftheyrenotspokentheycanunderminethe
marriage.
Forexample,saysDuncan,ifafterastressfuldayatworkahusbandexpectshis
wifetounderstandthathistemperisshortandsheshouldntprovokehim,hisexpectation
isunrealistic.Instead,communicateclearlythatImalittlecrankyrightnowandIneed
somedistanceforabitanditsnotaboutyou.

Expectationscanbeveryrundeeplyheld,hesays,andcoupleswhodont
communicateaboutthemareboundtoexperiencedisappointmentandupsetfeelingsasa
spouseappearstoignoreanimportantneed:Expectationscomefromourfamiliesof
origin,themedia,andourpriorrelationships.Sometimeswelookforourspousestobe
thesumtotalofallthegoodthingsinourpriorrelationships,whichis,ofcourse,
unrealistic.
Ascoupleshaveassessandcommunicate,theycandoeverythingpossibletomeet
oneanothersreasonableexpectations.

ReducingAmbivalencewiththeSoftStartup
Whencouplesassesstheirfeelingsregularlyanddetermineareasforimprovement,they
canreducetheambivalenceintheirmarriagebyworkingtogether.Askingaspouseto
changeisadelicatematter,andDuncansaysakeyfactortosuccessisthesoftstartup.
Strengtheningamarriagerequiresidentifyingproblemsnotjustinoneselfbutalso
inonesspousebutnoonewantstobecriticizedoraccused.Gentleandkind
expressionofneedscouldgosomethinglikethisforawifewhoisfeelingemotionally
neglected,saysDuncan:Sweetheart,Ilovethatyoushowmeyoulovemebyworking
sohardtoprovideforourfamily.Couldyoushowmewithwordstoo,sometimes?
DuncanHewarnsagainstharshstartups,suchas,Icantstandhowyouchoose
PinterestovermeorAlIyoucareaboutisyourgunsandyourhuntingandImfedup.
Healsocautionsagainstpublicsettingsforanykindoffeedback.Evenindirect
referencestoyourspousesshortcomingswhileyoureoutwithfriendsisabadidea.You

willembarrassyourspouseandchancesareyoullgetreinforcedbyyourpeergroup,
bothofwhichwillfueltheproblems.
Instead,hesuggeststhatspousesraiseissuessoftlyandprivately:Youremuch
morelikelytogetanencouragingresponseifyoucansay,Sweetheart,Imreally
strugglingwithhowwerecommunicating.ImnotfeelingheardandIdliketoseethat
change.Wouldyoubewillingtoreadabookwithme?Orgoseethebishopora
counselorsomeonewhoisknowledgeableabouthelpingusbecomemoresensitiveto
oneanother?

Conclusion
DuncanandBirminghamagreewitheachotherthatanyoneconsideringmarryingshould
bewillingtodealwithambivalenceorreconsidermarryingatall.Noperfectpersonor
relationshipexists.Buttoomuchambivalenceisdangeroustoboththerelationshipandto
eachspousesphysicalhealth.Reducingnegativesandincreasingpositivesispossible
witheffortfrombothhusbandandwife,theysay.
Whileinsomecasesanindividualonespouseistrulyresistanttoworkingonhis
orhertheirmarriage,inmostcasescouplesarenotdoingalltheycan,saysDuncan.He
recommendsforsakingfoolishpride,lookingatourownheartstoknowtowhatdegree
weareorarentembracingandworkingatgospelandmaritalvirtues,andbeingwilling
tosacrificeourprideandourshortcomingsforthesakeofourspouseandoureternal
progressiontogether.

Sidebar
Manystudieshavediscoveredhealthfoundthebenefitsthatcomefrombeingmarried.of
marriage,HoweverBirminghamsaysthatthosebenefits,suchassupportiveness,
includinghealthbenefits,buttheytendtobeonedimensionall,saysBirmingham,suchas
measuringsupportiveness.Marriagesasawholearenotsoeasilycategorized,thoughand
shewonderedaboutmarriageswithlotsofpositivesbutalsolotsofnegatives.Asa
specialistintheintersectionofphysicalhealthwithmaritalhealth,Birminghamshe
decidedtolookmorecloselyatwhetherthenegativesinanambivalentmarriagewould
outweighthepositivesbywhenmeasuringbloodpressure,whichisanimportantpredictor
ofcardiovascularhealth.Theanswerwasyesthenegativesnegatethepositives.
Birminghamandhercolleaguesstudied94marriedcouplesbetween18and63
yearsold.Eachparticipantworeabloodpressuredevicethatmeasuredtheirblood
pressureonceevery30minutesfor24hours.Participantskeptadiarytoreportifthey
wereinteractingwiththeirspouseatthetimeofthebloodpressurereadingand,ifso,
theyreportedonthreerelationshipmeasures:perceivedpartnerresponsiveness,intimacy,
anddisclosure.