So, we all know the old saying, “You can’t change your spouse, you can only change yourself”. Well, apparently that saying isn’t 100% true. You can actually leverage your self-care to feel better about yourself and consequently, improve the well being of your marriage.
Self-care is integral to the health of our marriages. There are not a lot of studies to 100% prove the link between self-care and marriage where, for example, they study exercise and measure marital outcomes, but we want to look at the overall idea of taking good care of ourselves by eating well, exercising, sleeping and making leisure time because this does become a marital issue.
You see, when we fail to take care of ourselves, our mood, stress levels, and emotional responses all suffer. This, in turn, has a detrimental effect on the people around us.
Think about how this works. Husband is stressed so doesn’t sleep well. This causes wife not to sleep well. As husband gets tired, he becomes more quiet and withdrawn; as wife gets tired, she gets grumpy. Soon there is an attacker-withdrawer cycle going on. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)
The research, as well as real-life, shows us that emotions, hormones, moods and stress levels of a couple are intimately tied together. This comes into play through a phenomenon in marriage that is known as coregulation.
Take Care of Yourself
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Coregulation in Marriage
Coregulation is the dynamic, reciprocal interchange between partners across multiple biological systems.[i] That just means that we influence each other’s emotions and well-being.
This is an important dynamic at play in our marriages and it is happening automatically all the time. You don’t even think about it! It goes in both directions so that spouses can pull each other up or pull each other down.
The good part of this is that it helps us stay in sync and hopefully reach out to each other and lift each other up.
Coregulation Ties Spouse’s Emotions Together
A study in 2008, looked at how couples affected each other after spending time apart pursuing their own activities. They found that if a couple scored high on interpersonal insecurity (ie. They felt insecure about their relationship) then if one spouse reunited with negatives emotions the other spouse got on board with those negative emotions right away. On the other hand, if the husband was the type of guy who was willing to see his wife’s perspective and they came back together with softer negative emotions (like sadness or gloominess) then they would also match emotions.
There are other variables at play, but the point is that any couple’s emotions are interconnected pretty quickly when they reunite after pursuing individual activities.[ii]
For example, if husband gets home and wife is angry, he’s likely to get on board with that. If she is said, he’ll join her in her sadness.
We don’t want to oversimplify because there are other variables at play, but the point is that generally we do have this emotional pull on each other. We are – to some degree- tied at the hip when it comes to emotions.
Coregulation Ties Spouse’s Hormones and Moods Together
It’s funny what studies researchers think up sometimes… Saxbe and Repetti took saliva samples to measure cortisol levels in 30 married couples, multiple times a day over three days. “How’s your marriage? Just spit in this little cup right here.”
They found that a couple’s cortisol levels (cortisol is the ‘stress’ hormone) moved together. They also found that couples’ mood moved together.[iii]
The same thing was found when another study looked specifically at stress levels and compared the genders. It was found that wives had a greater impact on husbands than husbands did on wives. It actually was noted that high stress levels on the wife’s part had a pretty significant impact on the well-being of the husband.[iv]
Interestingly though, these researchers did not see the link as being unbreakable. In other words, they felt that it was not like the coregulation response happened regardless – a spouse can do something about it! Their recommendation was that if you become aware of your spouse being overly stressed, then you can choose to take preventative or helpful steps to avoid a decline in your own well-being.
Again, this points out there is a coregulation happening because part of the implication is that you can choose to take care of yourself, and as you do so, you may find this also helps your spouse out.
There is a very real push and pull that we can have on each other. If you grasp this in your marriage, it also means that it makes sense to engage in self-care even for the well-being of your spouse!
Caleb and I are not die-hard fitness people, but if one of us is exercising, the other gets on board pretty quickly. That is where my self-care actually begins to affect my husband’s well-being.
Self-Care That Affects Your Marriage
Our moods, stress levels and negative emotions can impact our spouse. It makes sense then that taking care of myself is not only important for my personal health but also the health of my spouse and our marriage.
As I mentioned earlier, we have not been able to find studies to establish a direct link between self care and marital happiness. What we have established from the research though is that there is a strong link between my well-being and my spouse’s. Below we will look at research that speaks specifically to individual well-being, but, as the research already implies, personal care also blesses my spouse and so, in turn, my marriage.
Exercise can have a positive effect on mood, health, and well-being. A study from 2003 found that people who participated in 20 minutes of an aerobic activity saw a positive effect on their mood and anxiety states.
Remember, if you can lift your mood, you will likely take your spouse with you because as we saw in an earlier study, positive moods in one spouse covaries with positive moods in the other spouse.
Do you get enough sleep? There can be a lot of things that come into life that make it hard to get enough sleep, but it is really important.
A study from 2013 noted that poor sleep was associated with altered stress regulation. When we don’t get enough sleep, we struggle to regulate stress in healthy ways. Results of their sleep quality study found that inadequate sleep led to poor “cognitive, affective, and physiological responses to stress.”[v]
If sleeplessness is impacting you, it’s going to carry over to your spouse. In this particular case it’s going to reduce your ability to manage your stress well. Remember how we saw that wives’ stress levels were linked to a detrimental impact on the husband’s well being? It is something to watch out for.
Some research from that show (Psychology and Psychiatry Journal 2011) revealed:
- There is a bi-directional relationship between relationship quality and sleep quality
- Sleep quality affects the functioning of the relationship the next day
- Conflict during the day leads to worse quality of sleep that night.
This just turns into a vicious cycle! Poor sleep -> Grumpy relationship the next day -> Bad sleep -> More grumpy…. And the cycle continues. No wonder the Bible tells us, “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”
The Society of Behavioral Medicine (2013) also spoke to this, finding that:
- Sleep is an aspect of stress regulation
- Lack of sleep affects ability to regulate stress, which leads to increasingly disturbed sleep, which leads to increasingly negative outcomes.
There is a lot of evidence to show that working towards higher-quality sleep is a form of self-care that can be a real blessing to your marriage.
It is obvious enough to say that what we eat has an impact on our physical healthy, but a study from 2009 also linked healthy eating with general life satisfaction. They particularly noted that eating more fruit and less fat was positively associated with life satisfaction. [vi]
Again, that study just focused on life satisfaction but I think it’s pretty safe to assume that life satisfaction and marriage satisfaction are fairly closely tied together. This brings in mood, emotions, stress levels: all that stuff. Eating well, is a key area for good self-care.
This means taking time for leisure activities – hobbies, traveling, relaxing… those kind of things. They have been found to lead to more positive emotions. You already know this.
A study in 2014 noted that it was helpful – if experiencing high daily stress – to allocate more time to leisure than usual.[vii] As in, if you have extra stress, try to compensate for that with leisure activities that will increase your positive mood. That, in turn, reduces the damage of high daily stress.
What we liked about this study is that acknowledges that we can’t all just turn off the stress like a switch in our lives. So, if we can’t take it away, the question is, what can we do in terms of leisure, exercise, eating well, and sleeping better, in order to compensate for that.
We can’t just quit our job, or walk away from caring for someone who is disabled – but these things are stressful. The question is, what else can we change to help us compensate and manage better?
The answer is self-care.
The part that’s really neat here, is that as we engage in better, more intentional self-care, not only is it a blessing to ourselves but to our marriages as well.
So think seriously about your self-care. We’ve just mentioned four areas, but there are more. What would you like to change today that’s going to make your marriage a calmer, more pleasant, healthier, happier place?
Start with these three things:
- Listen to the podcast
- Download the worksheet
- Discuss with your spouse the changes you’d like to make in your marriage starting today.
[i] Darby E. Saxbe and Rena Repetti, “No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 36, no. 1 (2010): 71–81, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167209352864.
[ii] Dominik Schoebia, “The Coregulation of Daily Affect in Marital Relationships,” Journal of Family Psychology 22, no. 4 (August 2008): 595.
[iii] Darby Saxbe and Rena L. Repetti, “For Better or Worse? Coregulation of Couples’ Cortisol Levels and Mood States,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 98, no. 1 (January 2010): 92.
[iv] Joelle C. Ruthig, Jenna Trisko, and Tara L. Stewart, “The Impact of Spouse’s Health and Well-Being on Own Well-Being: A Dyadic Study of Older Married Couples,” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 31, no. 5 (May 2012): 508–29, doi:http://dx.doi.org/101521jscp2012315508.
[v] Paula G. Williams et al., “The Effects of Poor Sleep on Cognitive, Affective, and Physiological Responses to a Laboratory Stressor,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine 46, no. 1 (August 2013): 40–51, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12160-013-9482-x.
[vi] Nina Grant, Jane Wardle, and Andrew Steptoe, “The Relationship Between Life Satisfaction and Health Behavior: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Young Adults,” International Journal of Behavioral Medicine 16, no. 3 (September 2009): 259–68.
[vii] Xinyi Lisa Qian, Careen M. Yarnal, and David M. Almeida, “Does Leisure Time Moderate or Mediate the Effect of Daily Stress on Positve Affect? An Examination Using Eight-Day Diary Data,” Journal of Leisure Research 46, no. 1 (2014): 106–24.