Does the quality of your romantic relationship affect your health? As it turns out, the answer is yes. Thanks to the work of marriage researchers, we now know that an unhappy marriage can increase your chances of getting sick by 35 percent and even shorten your life by an average of four years! The flip side: People who are happily married live longer, healthier lives than either divorced people or those who are unhappily married.

Scientists know for certain that these differences exist, but they’re not sure why. According to marriage researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., part of the answer may be that in an unhappy marriage people experience chronic, diffuse physiological arousal, which can present itself in physical ailments, including colds, flu, high blood pressure and heart disease. “Not surprisingly, happily married couples have a far lower rate of such maladies,” according to Gottman. “They also tend to be more health-conscious than others. Researchers theorize that this is because spouses keep after each other to have regular checkups, take medicine, eat nutritiously, and so on.” Not only do happily married people avoid this drop in immune function, but their immune systems even get an extra boost from their marital bliss!

What if you love your mate, but your marriage seems to be off track? Fortunately for counseling professionals that specialize in relationships, research has provided us with more evidence-based methods than ever before to help you determine what kind of marriage you have (including accurate ways to predict if yours will last), where your strengths and weaknesses are (you may be surprised) and what specific actions you can take (there are actually three successful styles of marriage) to help make your marriage more rewarding than you ever imagined.

Getting to that level of stability and happiness in your marriage, while avoiding the destructive patterns that lead to divorce, requires a delicate balance between “accentuate the positive, but don’t eliminate the negative.”  Here’s what I mean:

1. Accentuate The Positive.
In his ground-breaking book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, John Gottman’s research suggests that what really separates contented couples from those in deep marital misery is a healthy balance between their positive and negative feelings and actions toward each other. According to Gottman, “there is a very specific ratio that exists between the amount of positivity and negativity in a stable marriage. That magic ratio is 5 to 1. As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable.”

One of the most gratifying aspects of my work as a relationship professional is to help couples rediscover, reclaim and cultivate the ability to express a genuine interest in each other’s lives and communicate affection, fondness, and admiration for each other.  In the movie Shall We Dance, Beverly Clark (played by Susan Sarandon) put it like this:  ”We need a witness to our lives.  There’s a billion people on the planet, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything.  The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it, all of the time, every day.  You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it.  Your life will not go unwitnessed because I will be your witness’.”

I have been amazed at how much “straight talk” your partner is able to hear from you when he or she feels free to be open without fear of losing your affection.

2. But don’t eliminate the negative. 
Gottman originally assumed that expressing anger would have a destructive effect on a couple’s relationship, but was surprised to find that complaining is actually one of the healthiest activities that can occur in a marriage. Expressing anger and disagreement, rather than suppressing the complaint, appears to make the marriage stronger in the long run. Gottman reports that anger appears to negatively affect the marriage only when it is defensive or expressed with criticism or contempt. He says, “A relationship can actually be strengthened because embedded in the complaint is the message that the complaining partner wants the relationship to get back on course so it can continue.” In my own practice of relationship counseling, I have been amazed at how much “straight talk” your partner is able to hear from you when he or she feels free to be open without fear of losing your affection.

The “accentuate the positive, but don’t eliminate the negative” approach to improving your marriage sounds simple, but don’t be too hard on yourself if you find that you need professional help getting there.  Even though nine out of ten Americans who have used counseling services say it helped them substantially, reaching out can be difficult.  It takes a great deal of strength and courage to recognize what isn’t working or is missing in your relationship, and step forward and say ‘I want a better life for myself and for us.’