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Why Be Married? For the Stress Relief

Some very surprising research results were reported last month. They offered some pretty strong evidence of a real difference between marriage and living together. And it doesn't come from the marriage license or the religious ceremony. It comes from thinking of yourselves as married.

The research was reported at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas. Psychologist Jim Coan of the University of Virginia headed up the study.

This was a follow-up to replicate and expand on earlier findings that holding a husband's hand during a stressful experiment kept a woman's hypothalamus (the brain structure that regulates many of the symptoms of stress) calmer than holding a stranger's hand or no hand does.

A changing signal displayed inside the fMRI scanner indicated no threat of a shock or a 20% chance of a shock to create the stress.

The follow-up included a lot more couples, both married and living together, including 26 same-sex couples. In Virginia, same-sex marriage is illegal, so they were asked whether they thought of themselves as married or living together. And this time both males and females got a chance at being threatened while holding their partner's hand, a stranger's hand, or no one's hand.

The finding that completely surprised Jim Doan? Holding the hand of someone a person is married to or thinks of as their spouse has a stress-reducing effect on the hypothalamus not available to those who hold a cohabiting partner's or stranger's hand as they face a stressful situation.

The hypothalamus is tiny. It produces the hormones that tell the pituitary gland what hormones to release. Among its many wonders, the hypothalamus controls your body temperature, your sleep cycles, your thirst and hunger, your blood pressure, and your heart rate. It also controls the oxytocin (for trust and bonding), dopamine (for your brain's reward system), and vasopressin (controlling your water retention and blood vessel constriction) in your body.

If you face pain, surgery, chemo, or radiation, holding the hand of someone you feel married to can relieve a lot of the stress that comes with it. Yet another surprising reason to enjoy being married.


But what if he throws stuff at you whenever he gets angry? Then what?

Commitment and trust really make a huge difference in our lives.

If the stuff he throws is more damaging than a Nerf ball, I believe there are only two explanations for the behavior. (1) He doesn't love you or care about protecting you. (2) He loves you but has lost control over his behavior, which can happen with addiction, alcohol abuse, dementia, brain tumor, or failure to learn the methods others use to keep their behavior in line with their intentions.

If it's (1), you need to get yourself to safety permanently. If it might be (2), you need to get yourself to safety temporarily and ask him to get the treatment or training he needs to gain some self-control.

If it's a permanent or terminal condition, you might hire or recruit others to protect you from harm and him from shame or guilt.

If it's a treatable one, the very best thing you can do for your marriage is also the best for you personally. As long as it's possible to hurt the person he loves, he's going to experience shame or denial when it happens, neither of which are good for him. Your relationship is going to tilt out of balance, with one of you the "good guy" and the other the "bad guy," a situation that creates resentment on both sides and will quickly corrode your marriage. And you will be in danger of physical harm and a hardened heart. Make treatment or education available and make it impossible for him to harm you again until it's completed. You'll make it easier for him to find the strength to change, and you'll protect your relationship so you can return to loving each other as equals if he does.

I've missed you and hope all is ok.

Thanks. It is now.

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Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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