Is Your Marriage Toxic?

Start mending your unhealthy relationship before it’s too late.

Medically Reviewed by Marina Katz, MD on September 05, 2011
4 min read

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.

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.

"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.

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.

Everyone wants to be heard. But partners in troubled marriages often don't listen effectively to each other. "When we don’t listen," Rivkin says, "we hear a word that triggers us and then we’re off and running with our argument."

When someone doesn't feel listened to, that person doesn't share the most intimate parts themselves. That's because that person doesn't want to be vulnerable, Rivkin says. When someone feels heard, the conversation deepens.

Agree with your partner to take turns listening to each other for three to five minutes without interrupting. "Right away when you start to listen," Rivkin says, "you get a new view of your partner."

Rivkin says unhappily married people often blame their partner instead of taking responsibility for their own actions. But blaming never solves anything.

"You’re just going to escalate the argument," Rivkin says. "It’s really not that we’re trying to be mean to our partners, but we’re at our wit’s end."

Try to find the core issues that you're really fighting about, Rivkin says. For instance, are you not feeling heard, loved, or appreciated? If you are having trouble figuring out the core issue, ask yourself what or who does this fight remind you of? "Once you understand what’s causing it, then you can change your patterns, change your behaviors," Rivkin says.

One of the most common problems in marriage is taking your partner for granted and becoming less sensitive to that person’s needs over time, Rivkin says.

Maybe your partner no longer says hello to you when they come home from work. Perhaps they don’t acknowledge that you cooked their favorite meal for dinner.

"We all need appreciation and affection," Rivkin says. Without that, a person starts to feel lonely, unappreciated, and neglected.

Show your spouse some appreciation with a gift or a simple thank you. And invest time in the relationship, like planning a date night, Rivkin suggests.

You may feel too resentful and angry at your partner to show appreciation. If so, Rivkin says to do it anyway. "Right away, that wall of resentment and anger goes down just a little bit," she says.

You can further build intimacy by remembering what you once liked about your partner and telling your partner, at a calm time, what bothers you about their behavior.

Don't hesitate to get help with your relationship, especially if you've tried and failed to improve your marriage on your own.

Don’t expect the walls of resentment to come down right away. Rivkin suggests allowing at least three months to see if working with a therapist or using the advice from a relationship book is helping your marriage.

Change may come slowly. But don't be afraid of taking baby steps. "One little change can be huge to begin to change a pattern," Rivkin says.