Are You In An Ambivalent Marriage?

by Leigh Anderson
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Everyone has the same ideal of marriage when they walk down the aisle: We’ll be entering into a lifelong partnership with the love of our life. The days will be filled with exciting adventures, big laughs and hot sex. We will be better together than apart. Marriage means the two together are happier than the two alone.

Except when it isn’t. Marriages run the gamut from wonderful, life-affirming joyous unions to total shitshows, the kind of disaster where you think, How in the world can these people stay together even for a second?

I’ve always felt that if you can’t have a really good marriage, you should have a really bad one, so the decision to leave is an easy one. It’s the vast in-between space, where both parties are vaguely unhappy but for whatever reasons aren’t able to work up the gumption to leave.

It turns out that these somewhat unhappy in-between marriages are actually pretty bad for your health, too, according to new research from Brigham Young University in Utah. Belinda Luscombe, writing for Time, reports that Wendy Birmingham, a psychology professor at BYU, recruited 94 couples to participate in a study measuring marital happiness and heart health. Each participant answered questions about their spouse and his or her behavior.

The bad news is that a lot of us are in what the researchers dubbed “ambivalent marriages.” Seventy-five percent of us, in fact. Luscombe defines this ambivalent marriage as “mostly their spouses were great, but there was some areas in which they were unsupportive or overly negative.”

But what was interesting about these so-so marriages is that their health, or at least their blood pressure, was worse than that of the people in the good marriages. Marriage generally confers a health benefit: People who are married are healthier and live longer than singles. The researchers in the BYU study took blood-pressure readings of the married couples in their study and found that the couples in the so-so marriages had worse blood pressure than the happily married couples.

In other words, only a good marriage is good for your health. A not-great marriage can be a health risk factor.

Luscombe writes: “The bad news is that the bump in heart health that married people get from being married is not as strong as the thump they take when the marriage is ambivalent. ‘Research has shown that feeling invalidated by a partner is more detrimental to you than validating is good for you,’ says Birmingham.”

I’d be curious to see how a not-great marriage stacks up, health-wise, against a happily single life. In my experience, women in so-so marriages continue to stick it out because launching a solo life is both daunting and potentially expensive, and they worry about the effect on any minor children. (In the BYU study, none of the participants had children or other relatives living with them.) I’d hazard that a happy life means a healthy life, whether you’re coupled up or footloose and fancy free.

I’d also like to see a more granular breakdown of this 75 percent. That’s a pretty big number and must contain a range of values on the happiness scale. I mean, a lot of us can recognize that our partners and marriages aren’t perfect and still be pretty darn happy. And a lot of us can recognize that our partners and marriages aren’t perfect and suddenly wake up one day and say, “I’ve got to get out.” What I’m saying is, “ambivalent” can span a really broad range, from “near-miserable” to “occasionally discontent.” Everyone has to decide their own tipping point. (I’ve heard recommended the book Too Good To Leave, Too Bad To Stay, for people on the marital fence.)

Luscombe ends on a high note: “The good news is that for the vast majority of people, this is eminently fixable, says Birmingham. It’s not hard to figure out what you’re doing that’s dragging your partner down—you can ask, for a start—and you can (gently) explain what he or she might stop doing to make you feel more intimate (not sexy- time intimate, she stresses, but emotionally and intellectually intimate). Plus, that’s what therapists are for.”

And if that doesn’t work? That might be the push ambivalently married people need to finally become, well, happily divorced people.

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