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Is Your Marriage Toxic?

Start mending your unhealthy relationship before it’s too late.
By Joanna Broder
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Marina Katz, MD

You may have heard that marriage can bring better physical and psychological health.

But here's the fine print: People in unhappy marriages don't seem to get those benefits. In fact, their rocky relationship may make them less healthy.

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A 2005 study showed that staying in an unsatisfying marriage may raise stress and worsen health. Another study showed that people in close yet negative relationships are more likely to get heart disease.

That doesn't prove that a good marriage makes you healthy or that a bad marriage makes you sick. But there's no question -- a bad marriage isn't good for you. Fortunately, there are measures you and your partner can take to bolster the chance your marriage will grow and thrive no matter what life throws your way.

Consider the Stress

"If you’re in a bad marriage," says marriage and family therapist Sharon Rivkin, "don’t underestimate the stress that you are carrying around." If your day-to-day relationship is full of stress, fighting, or the silent treatment, she says, "you are compromising your health every day."

Some couples – for instance, couples where one partner lacks empathy or is physically abusive to the other one -- will not make it, Rivkin says. But, she says, there is hope for most couples, even if they have years of hurt and resentment. Here are some of the things you can do to help you and your partner get beyond those painful times in your relationship.

Open Up About Your Feelings

Every couple faces challenges, Denver psychologist Susan Heitler says. But if you don’t talk about your problems, marital tension and the distance between you will only grow. 



Joy, who asked that her last name not be used, recalls how she avoided conflict with her ex-husband, a recovering alcoholic, in part to protect his sobriety. "You almost walk on eggshells around somebody," she says. "You want to make sure they’re OK and not wanting to drink, and you don’t want to stress them out and you don’t want to start fights." The strained communication, though, ultimately led to her being depressed.

Heitler says that people who grew up in families that communicated well about problems "speak the language of cooperation naturally." But many people didn't learn those skills when they were younger and need tools for talking about sensitive issues in a safe way.

How do you improve your communication? Heitler, author of The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong & Loving Marriage, suggests turning to books on communication, marriage education courses, or web sites for help. Marriage counselors are another good option, but, Heitler says, not all of them teach effective communication skills. So look for one who specializes in how to communicate with one another.

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