Relationship stress can be a huge source of misery and health problems. Studies show, for example, that marital stress and dissatisfaction go hand in hand with depression and heart trouble for both men and women.

In one study, University of Pittsburgh researchers studied 500 middle-aged women and found that women in high stress marriages, when compared with this in low stress and more satisfying marriages, were at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes because they were more likely to have blockages in the main artery of their hearts and in their carotid artery. Stress hormones drive such problems.

Stress is like second hand smoke, it can poison and ruin a marriage and an entire family over time. Toxic stress is also contagious in families and once children are “infected” they have a greater likelihood of life problems such as school failure and substance abuse.

Let’s summarize briefly what stress actually is so we can be clear what we’re talking about. Stress is not just about feeling tense, wired and tired. Stress is about the release of toxic hormones into our system, hormones that are part of our survival hard-wiring known as the “fight or flight response”.

This hard-wired survival response is meant for a time that is long gone and so it often triggers in error. As a result, our “stress hormone faucet” gets turned on too often and it stays on too long. Stress hormones then seep into our blood and tissues where they can damage both our body and mind.

Chronic relationship stress releases hormones that drive anxiety and depression as well as elevated heart rate, increased constriction of blood vessels, increased cholesterol and decreased heart rate variability, a heart risk factor.

Low stress levels and success in a marriage, or a long-term committed relationship, depends on our ability to maintain a good supply of love and friendship. All relationships go through periods of heightened stress and dissatisfaction, such stress and strain represent important challenges that can lead to growth and happiness.
But chronic high stress squeezes love and friendship out of our relationship and kills it a little bit every day. It's the long term relationship stress and dissatisfaction that causes harm to our health and well being.
What sets up conditions for long-term toxic stress in our committed relationship? One core problem is that we don’t see our partner accurately, but we think we do. We unconsciously imagine our partner instead—according to our own past relationship conflicts and wounds, including what we went through and observed in our family.

There’s at least 4 people in any long-term committed relationship. There’s you and your partner and there’s the person you and your partner imagine each other to be. For love and friendship to deeply endure in a relationship, you and your partner need to become aware of how you create these other two additions. This requires self-knowledge and some work.

For example, imagine a person John whose mother guilt tripped him to control his behavior. If one day John’s spouse took him to task for not doing his fair share, then there would be a good chance John would misread the situation and feel guilt tripped and controlled.

If John yelled and complained about it, while disclaiming responsibility, then his spouse would feel ignored and wrongly accused as a result. This could become a “stress theme” in their marriage, a source of chronic tension and even despair. This kind of thing happens all day long in some relationships when each partner lacks self-knowledge.

Once we have self-knowledge, then we can adjust and consciously respond instead of reacting unconsciously. This helps maintain a healthy flow love and friendship, and it keeps stress levels out of the red zone. It also allows for deep empathy and concern for our partner.

In the early days of my marriage if my spouse spoke harshly to me, I would often react as if it were a declaration of war, because of my own psychological baggage. Now if my spouse speaks harshly to me, I wonder if she’s feeling OK and I give her the room to be grumpy without taking it personally. And she does that for me too and we both appreciate it as a gesture of love and friendship.

We all need to learn how to develop the capacities to be stress free and healthy in our committed relationship. We have to work to keep the love and friendship flowing over the long haul. If we can't do that, we’ll become stressed out and lonely and our soul will despair. Our task is to keep our relationship alive as an adventure—so that it doesn’t become a stress machine or a mere parking spot for our lives.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Jim Manganiello is an award winning clinical health psychologist, teacher and author. He’s a longtime innovator in the areas of stress, well-being, personal growth and "inner fitness".

He earned his B.A. and his Ed.D. at Boston University, where he was directly admitted to doctoral candidacy under a full fellowship awarded on the basis of outstanding promise for professional excellence.

Jim completed his clinical internship at Boston City Hospital and went on to teach psychology at Boston University for 5 years. He also taught and trained therapists at Lesley University Graduate School for an additional 4 years. He has an academic rank of associate professor. At Lesley and the New England Mindbody Institute, he pioneered some of the early mindbody strategies for personal growth, stress resilience and holistic health.

Additional Resources covering Stress Management can be found at:

Website Directory for Stress Management
Articles on Stress Management
Products for Stress Management
Discussion Board
Dr. Jim Manganiello, the Official Guide To Stress Management