The 'Language of Love' Good for Marriage -- and Health

From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 28, 2001 -- Sweet nothings may really add up to something after all -- nothing less than the possibility of good health and a long marriage.

Health experts say positive interactions between couples can boost immunity and reduce the risk of heart disease by keeping stress hormones low. And the kind words and warm feelings can also go a long way toward keeping a marriage healthy.

In a study of newlyweds, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, of Ohio State University, found that language can affect cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone; as stress increases, levels of cortisol increase in the blood.

"Our study showed that ... women are particularly sensitive to negative words," Kiecolt-Glaser tells WebMD. "In fact, women with cortisol increases were two to three times more likely to be divorced within 10 years," says Kiecolt-Glaser, professor and director of health psychology at Ohio State University College of Medicine.

She presented the findings at the American Psychological Association meeting held last year. Her team studied 90 newlywed couples aged 20-37. Each couple shared how they met and discussed a current marital conflict. The couples used significantly more positive words to describe their relationship history and more negative words when discussing their conflict.

Ten years later, researchers contacted the participants to find out their marital status.

Men's cortisol levels during the original discussions did not seem to predict whether they would be married in the future. But the women whose cortisol increased in the earlier interviews were more than twice as likely to be divorced a decade later.

This is why women appear to function as good barometers of marital quality, Kiecolt-Glaser explains. Studies have shown that women have a stronger and longer physical response to marital conflict than men do, often caused just by recalling past events. "And it may explain why women decide, more often than men, whether to mend or end their marriages," she says.

Fortunately, you can learn to discuss marital problems in positive terms. "Even if you're angry, there are constructive ways to work it out," says marriage counselor David Woodsfellow, PhD, director of the Center for Relationship Therapy in Atlanta.

To have more positive interactions, work on these skills:

  • Agree on a set time to do something, rather than insisting on right now.
  • Use a low volume and soft tone, especially at the beginning of the conversation.
  • Avoid language that conveys disrespect and dislike.
  • Eliminate verbal attacks on character traits and habits.
  • Take a 20-minute break to calm down as needed.

To prevent problems from arising, couples need to communicate on a regular basis, Woodsfellow tells WebMD. "Many couples are juggling two careers and growing kids in a fast-paced world." He suggests the following methods to reconnect or stay in touch:

  • Meet for 20-minutes when you first get home from work.
  • Take an evening walk together as often as possible.
  • Catch up with each other again after the kids go to bed.
  • Schedule a weekly two-hour outing without your children.
  • Make these rituals a habit.

In merging lives and households, newlyweds have other challenges. "Each of you has your own way of doing things," Woodsfellow says, "but now you'll be sharing meals, evenings, vacations, and holidays. So in establishing your new life together, consider these tips:"

  • Discuss your personal rituals with each other.
  • Keep the ones you like and let go of the rest.
  • Establish new ones as you go.