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'Frenemy' marriages: Ambivalence leads to health, relationship downside, study says
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If happy marriages improve health and unhappy ones hurt it, what happens to the majority in the middle where good and bad co-exist? - photo by Lois M. Collins
If happy marriages improve health and unhappy ones hurt it, as research has shown, what happens to the majority of marriages that fall somewhere in between, with a mix of good and bad, and of highs and lows?

Researchers at Brigham Young University studied whether that ambivalence what they call "frenemy" marriages raises or lowers blood pressure. Short answer: It goes up higher in those marriages than that of the roughly 25-40 percent of couples who see their relationship as primarily supportive. That likely means that the heart-protective features research associates with marriage are less likely for couples whose relationship has what lead researcher Wendy Birmingham calls "high levels of positive and negative elements."

"Sometimes we think of marriage as this 'happily ever after' where everything is bliss and happiness,'" said Birmingham, an assistant professor of psychology at BYU, in press material for the study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine. "But the truth is, marriages contain varying levels of positivity and negativity."

The literature has been saying that marriage is beneficial, she told the Deseret News. But "as we looked further, the quality of the marriage matters. It's not being married, it's being happily married that's beneficial."

Black and white

In December, research led by Michigan State University found older couples in unhappy marriages have a greater risk of heart trouble especially the wife. The study, "Bad Marriage? Broken Heart," was published by the Journal of Health and Social Behavior and was supported financially by the National Institute on Aging.

"Marriage counseling is focused largely on younger couples," said lead researcher Hui Liu, a sociologist, of that study. "But these results show that marital quality is just as important at older ages, even when the couple has been married 40 to 50 years."

The study, too, found a bad marriage cancels out any protection that might be offered by the potential good aspects of marriage.

Meanwhile, the American College of Cardiology announced last March that compared with single folks, married people were 5 percent less likely to have heart disease and a lower risk of abdominal aortic aneurysm, cerebrovascular disease and peripheral arterial disease. The odds of coronary disease were lower in married subjects compared even with those who were widowed and divorced.

Many more studies have also looked at the health impact of marriage quality, but most neatly assign the marriage a positive or negative value: distressed or not; happy or not; supportive or not, Birmingham said. Most marriages don't fit neatly into one side or the other, but have highs and lows, challenges and successes. The researchers said they set out to look at "realistic relationships" that are neither consistently perfect nor awful.

"I might be married to my husband, and he is an awesome guy a great father, a great provider and I love him dearly. But emotionally, he's completely unavailable to me," Birmingham said. "Or, he's just great at all those things, but he's also super critical of me in a way that makes me feel bad."

It was not hard for the research team to find people in ambivalent marriages, she said: "Over half definitely report enough negativity that we would classify it as ambivalent."

Not just health

The study included 94 couples ages 18 to 63 (the mean age was 29.5), but only those who did not have anyone else living in their home with them, to avoid confounding factors that could influence blood pressure. By chance, they were mostly white and mostly educated. Both partners in each couple also worked, though not necessarily full time.

Each couple came into the lab in the morning, before work, where they filled out an assessment showing if they were positive, ambivalent or negative about their marriage. Then a research assistant hooked each to an ambulatory blood pressure monitor and gave each of them a daily electronic diary. The blood pressure cuff was set to go off randomly about every 30 minutes, after which they were to fill out the daily diary.

The couples had each agreed to spend that evening together, still on the blood pressure monitor. They removed it at bedtime and returned it the next day.

The study found no gender differences in the results.

The couples identified as ambivalent reported lower levels of intimacy. They were less likely to disclose things about themselves to their partner. And they were less likely to describe their partners as supportive or responsive. Birmingham said that matters because when people feel their spouse responds and they really tell each other what's going on in their lives, they feel "validated" and cared about.

That's problematic, she noted, because "feeling invalidated is more detrimental to a relationship than feeling validated is beneficial."

The point of a couple being together should be something along the lines of "we protect each other, from outside and inside," said Stan Tatkin, a relationship coach in Calabasas, California, who was not involved with the BYU study. "We have each others backs; we know each other better than we know ourselves. We operate on fairness, justice and sensitivity."

Mature couples, he said, understand they are "in the foxhole together or they get picked off by predators in the environment."

If one goes down, he noted, so does the other, so there's incentive to care for and protect each other. That's something all couples can work on.

The BYU team noted that history is not destiny: Couples can be intentional about becoming more supportive. They can listen more, share more and support each other more. Doing so is likely to provide the touted health benefits of a happy marriage.