Why saving your marriage matters.
Schroepfer will never forget when one of her hospice patients was hovering at the edge of death. She was unconscious, barely hanging on. Her children had all told their mother it was okay to let go. But the woman’s grieving husband hadn’t been able to give his blessing. Finally, after talking with his daughter, he decided he was ready to give his wife permission to leave them. “He sat down beside her and told her he loved her, and that it was okay,” Schroepfer recalls. “He got up to walk back to his chair. Right after he sat down, she raised her head out of the coma, said ‘I love you,’ and died. I was glad their daughter was there too, or I would have thought I’d imagined it.”
Although medical researchers may not be able to pinpoint where that surge of willpower comes from, they have shown evidence for people’s remarkable ability to hold on and let go at will. David Phillips, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in the statistical analysis of sociological data, has looked at the link between mortality and culturally meaningful events. Just before Passover each year, he found, the death rate for Jewish people fell sharply below normal levels, and rose again immediately afterward. Non-Jewish people showed no change in mortality before or after the holiday. Similarly, he showed a drop in deaths among Chinese people before their symbolically important Harvest Moon Festival, and a corresponding rise after the event had ended. If people can their bodies to hold out for one more Harvest Moon Festival, one more family reunion, then why not for love?
After all, love doesn’t just feel good, Coan has found, it is good for us: Happy relationships can protect against the negative effects of stress. In studies designed to measure how social support influences the stress response, Coan brings volunteers into an MRI scanner and threatens to zap them with an electric shock. Periodically a symbol flashes before their eyes, indicating there’s a 20 percent chance they’ll receive a shock in the next few seconds. The goal, he says, is to create an “anticipatory anxiety” that mimics the feeling you get from everyday stressors like a looming work deadline.
But the volunteers aren’t in it alone. Some are holding the hand of someone they trust – a romantic partner, parent, or close friend. Others are holding the hand of a stranger. Coan has found that brain activity in the hypothalamus, the region heavily implicated in the body’s stress response, differs between those holding a loved one’s hand and those holding hands with a stranger. Clasping hands with a loved one tamps down threat-related activity.
I put myself through both my undergraduate and graduate training by working at a part-time job in emergency medicine. It doesn’t take long working in that sort of a field to have considerable experience with people’s end-of-life behaviours — some, quite peaceful — others, horrific.
The majority of the peaceful experiences seemed to be marked by two key elements: The people experiencing such had lived lives of relational connection — usually in marriage — and they had lived lives of authenticity within those relationships.
The full article is rather long — but it’s really a compelling and masterful piece which weaves cutting edge research on the relational activation of the brain (and it’s the ability to protect us from so many things) and what happens when a relationship is lost while mixing such with a clear grasp of how much our decision to live (or die) really does matter.
And, it’s a sobering counterpoint to a culture that treats marriage as little more then a mechanism for pleasure and which would kick relationships to the curb with little to no thought.
Marriages really are worth saving.