The Very Best Investment

Investing in your primary relationship builds value & pays big dividends

Posted Feb 11, 2010

"Love conquers everything except poverty and toothache", Mae West said. We know that financial stress drags marriages down. Money and how to manage it is a sure source of conflict in many couple relationships. A 2006 study in Money magazine found that 15% of couples fought about money several times a month. Even in strong marriages, stressors such as job losses, salary cuts or working longer hours can trigger angry outbursts of frustration or numbed out silences that quickly take a marriage into the danger zone.


Do we even have time for building a resilient marriage anymore? As financial and career pressures increase, giving time and attention to your marriage also gets harder and harder. Just as we all need a little more loving consolation and support from our partner, it seems to be harder to find.

But some relationships seem to be able to weather storms like this just fine! What is the secret to being able to stand together and ride the waves life throws at us all, whether it's a sick kid, a medical diagnosis, or a lay-off ? The new science of love gives us a very clear message that resilience, both personal and in a relationship, is all about the strength of our bond - the quality of our emotional connection with the people we love.

Let's look at a couple of dramatic examples. First, a study of Israeli prisoners of war who had been isolated and tortured, found that the men who could call on their sense of being loved by their partner could actively use this felt sense of being loved in their prison cell to give themselves hope and the courage to fight on. Maybe this is a little like what I do when I am in a plane taking off in rough weather. I sit back and listen to my husband's soothing voice telling me that he would not let me do anything dangerous and I am coming home to him. I believe him. Evidence shows that just thinking of our loved ones triggers a cuddle hormone called oxytocin in our brains and this hormone gives us a sense of calm contentment and turns off the stress hormones that are keeping our brain on high alert. But the securely attached Israeli prisoners not only engaged in imaginary conversations with their wives in their prison cells, they were also able to recover faster and more completely once they were released!

This kind of research is just part of the growing evidence that we are not built to face stress and anxiety alone. Our most basic instinct, which is to reach for someone we love when things get rough, is our most powerful survival skill. The touch of someone we love literally calms the jittery neurons in our brain. In another study, women lying in an MRI machine who were told they were about to receive an electric shock, were able to use the touch of their husbands hand to calm the stress centers in their brains and lessen the pain of the shock. After all these years we are literally finding proof for the power of love !!!!!

In our work with those who constantly find themselves in harm's way, such as policemen, firemen and military couples, we have learned that the most effective antidote to stress, ongoing fear and catastrophe is a safe haven bond with a partner. What do these couples learn to do that we can apply to our relationships when monetary crises hit?

1. Partners can learn to offer, the most precious gift of all - themselves and their caring when their partner needs comfort. Often we try to "fix" our partners anxiety or pain with advice or ideas about what he or she should do. This usually backfires. What our partner needs from us, especially when he or she is filled with uncertainty, is emotional closeness and support. So saying, "This is so hard. I know you are scared, but I am here and we can do this together," isn't just kindness, it has the ability to turn off the alarm centers in your partner's brain. Your very emotional presence is reassuring.

2. Holding up a loving mirror to our partner is key. We so often blame ourselves when bad things happen: "If only I had worked harder or taken that other job, or invested in different things." Our partner's compassion is an antidote to this kind of self- criticism. If he or she can tell us that we did the best we could and what had happened is not our fault, we can sometimes accept that ourselves!

3. We can learn to pinpoint the emotional triggers that can move us into agitation and irritability or into numbing out and distancing. These moves always impact your partner and make it harder for him or her to support you. They create distance in your relationship. Jim is able to tell his wife, "I just got caught in the Gloom thing again and so I got irritable with you acting happy just now. I don't want us to get into our ‘I complain while you get exasperated and move away' routine. I don't want this stress to come between us. Maybe I just need to talk to you."

4. The last comment Jim makes here is the real key to dealing with stress in our relationships; to be able to turn to your partner and ask for what you need. This is an act of strength and courage. You ask for the emotional support and reassurance you need. Each time you can do this and your partner can respond you are building a safe haven relationship that no stressor can destroy. We know that when partners can do this they are stronger and more confident as individuals and they create stronger more loving bonds.

When we are in trouble and face an unpredictable future, this is when we need our love relationships the most. Our 25 years of research with couples tells us that when we can stand together, we can face any crisis that shows up - if we just hold each other tight.

And by the way, secure lasting marriages are good for the economy. Married folks are healthier and are able to pool resources, so have more wealth and economic assets. On the other side of the coin, a recent research report estimates the cost of a divorce for American society as a whole at about $25,000, including factors such as the need for subsidized housing or lower tax revenue. A small improvement in the health of our marriages would, the experts agree, not only help us cope better with the economic crisis, but result in enormous savings for tax-payers. But, for most of us, the most pressing point is that attending to and turning to your relationship is the best investment you can ever make - the best way to save your sanity in any economic downturn. If we have each other, we can survive any storm.

www.drsuejohnson.com