In an age where half of all marriages end in divorce it's no wonder that many of us are confused about what it takes to stay together and be happy. Many of us who are currently married were raised in homes where our own parents divorced. We may have actually never seen a functional or happy marriage "up close and personal".
One of the unconscious by-products of being raised in a dysfunctional family is the idea that one must look out for oneself. This idea of not relying on anyone else and not trusting another person to truly "have our back" can subtly infiltrate an otherwise happy union. This dynamic can be viewed as "pro-self" versus "pro-relationship" behaviors.
A "pro-self" behavior behavior is essentially what it sounds like. At it's core it is designed to serve oneself and protect one's own self-interest. We make these all of the time, and when they are not made in the context of a committed relationship, or when they are infrequent, they are not necessarily destructive. For example, choosing to work out an hour before work may be a great choice for you. It can allow you to take care of your body with exercise and reduce stress. But if going to the gym before work means that you leave your partner to manage the task of getting your four kids off to school, and you know from previous conversations that s/he feels very stressed and overwhelmed by this and has asked for your help, then this "pro-self" choice is now working against the health and happiness of your committed relationship.
"Pro-relationship" choices are also just like they sound. These are the choices we make that are best for the relationship. Deciding to go to the gym on your lunch hour because your partner needs help in the morning is a "pro-relationship" choice. It may mean that you get a shorter work-out, or on some days, it may even mean not going to the gym at all. This may feel unfair, and of course we can't expect ourselves to be happy about it in the moment. But in the long run it is what is needed in order to make the relationship successful. Likewise, your partner needs to also be making more "pro-relationship" choices as opposed to "pro-self" choices. In that same couple one spouse may need to give up watching his/her favorite TV show at night in order to spend time with his/her spouse, who feels lonely because their partner tunes out with the TV instead of talking to him/her.
No one can make pro-relationship choices all of the time. We are human and as such we are prone to intermittent moments of selfishness, or egocentrism, or just plan forgetting to consider the other. We will of course sometimes make pro-self choices. But the more pro-relationship choices we can make, and feel good about making, the more healthy our relationship is going to be.
I can hear some of you thinking "wow, this is really naive!" What if your partner doesn't reciprocate? Well, that would need to change. This system (and a healthy, long-lasting and happy relationship) will only work if BOTH partners adhere to this rule. Both partners must be committed to making more pro-relationship choices than pro-self choices. If you and your current partner find this difficult then you may come from backgrounds in which your own parents did not prioritize their marriage above their own individual needs. You may have had a father who hid out in the garage all night working on projects while your mom felt lonely. Or you may have had a mom who bought things and hid the purchases from your father because she knew he would not approve. In these instances the parent is taking care of themselves over the relationship. If this is your history you may feel that making pro-relationship choices is naive or just plan stupid. You may feel that if you don't look out for yourself no one will, including your partner. If these feelings come up you may want to explore them in therapy with your partner. Through couples therapy you can learn what keeps you from making more pro-relationship choices and work to change those patterns. Just as we learned maladaptive patterns in childhood we can learn more healthy patterns as adults.
Wishing you well in your connection to others,
We all know on an intuitive level the power of touch. When we hear an infant cry our instinct is the pick the baby up and hold it, chest to chest, right over our heart. Mother nature has embedded in each of us the intrinsic knowledge that touch soothes. Touch is the earliest sense to develope in the human fetus. Surely that relates to it's importance in the survival of the organism. And yet our modern life, especially in this country (the USA) has diminished the amount of touch that each of us engages in every day. Studies done by Harper, Wiens and Matarazzo (1978) looked at touch in various contexts, including one study done in coffee houses. They found that during a one hour sitting 180 touchings were observed for Puerto Ricans, 110 for French, none for English and 2 for Americans. That's quite a difference! What exactly are we, as American's, missing out on?
One study done on pre-term infants (Field, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 22(4),1998) found that the stimulation of pressure receptors under the skin caused an increase in vagal nerve activity and slowing physiology that then caused the babies to be more relaxed in their behaviors. This also led to a decrease in stress hormones, most particularly cortisol, and an increase in immune function, particularly natural killer cells. The take home point again is that TOUCH MATTERS. Babies do better when they are touched, as do we all.
Another interesting study in the Journal of Behav Med. 2003 Fall;29(3) by Grewen, Anderson, Girdler and Ligth showed that loving partner contact is related to lower cardiovascular reactivity. This was measured by blood pressure reactivity to stress in healthy adults. The stress was induced by asking people to do a public speech (one of the most common fears!). Half of the participants had been able to hold their partners hand for 10 minutes prior to the speech and also asked to hug their partner for 20 seconds. The other half were just asked to sit by themselves for 10 minutes. People who had the loving contact of their partner prior to the stress had less increases in BP. The authors concluded that "These findings suggest that affectionate relationships with a supportive partner may contribute to lower reactivity to stressful life events and may partially mediate the benefit of marital support on better cardiovascular health."
Another study done by Grewen, Girdler, Amico and Light (Psychosomatic Medicine, 67, 2005) found that people's opinions about how supportive their partners are can be measured by looking at oxytocin, norepinephrine, cortisol in the blood as well as actual blood pressure before and after loving contact with their partner. Couples were assigned to 10 minutes of loving contact and then their blood was analyzed. Those who rated their relationship as more supportive had higher levels of oxytocin and in women higher partner support was correlated with lower BP. For women higher levels of oxytocin were also related to lower BP and lower levels of norepinephrine. The authors conclude that "Greater partner support is linked to higher [oxytocin] for both men and women; however, the importance of [oxytocin] and its potentially cardio-protective effects on sympathetic activity and BP may be greater for women." Again it is important to note that this study essentially measures the effects of physical contact with a loving partner, showing that loving touch in a supportive relationship literally affects our body chemistry in beneficial ways.
This link between loving touch and oxytocin lead to Dr. Zak prescribes at least 8 hugs per day in his TED talk in order to feel happier and more connected, as well as to nurture relationships. Zak's talk discusses the findings of the research above on hugging one's partner and how it can benefit one's health, especially the cardiovascular system.
In the wake of Valentines's Day it seems appropriate to celebrate the importance of loving touch. Perhaps science has finally given us reasons to stop feeling guilty about our inherent interdependence. It's time to support our need for connection and quit literally embrace our need for others. My advice is to love well and touch often. Your heart, immune system, stress level and state of mind will thank you.
With warm wishes,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.