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Want to improve your marriage? Get a hobby, more sleep and more exercise
Family therapist Lee N. Johnson has advice for married couples who aren't connecting, but it's probably not what one expects. - photo by Sharon Haddock
Family therapist Lee N. Johnson has advice for married couples who aren't connecting, but it's probably not what one expects.

Johnson, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, said he always has the same starter advice for battling couples: exercise, get more sleep and cultivate a hobby, as well as practice some stress reduction techniques.

Exercise feeds the body much as scripture and prayer feed the spirit, he said. Aerobic exercise combined with weight-training can balance the body's neurotransmitters and help combat depression, he said.

A hobby that one enjoys increases the window of tolerance for stressful situations, benefitting not only oneself but one's spouse. "It's vital," he said.

Sleep deprivation leads to a 60 percent increase in "fight or flight" reactions, he said.

"Manage your sleep. It's the last thing you give up. Insomnia shouldn't be tolerated," he said. "You need at least eight hours."

Johnson said human beings were designed with two brain systems: one (the amygdala) designed to automatically protect one's life and well-being; and another (the frontal lobe) designed to appraise the situation and react appropriately.

The "fight or flight" impulse can save one from physical and emotional harm. It's an automatic response to a real or perceived danger, so people need to adjust their thinking and temper their reactions after they become aware of the danger.

Marital problems arise when their fears trigger protective behavior and prevent effective couple connections.

"We are created for connection," Johnson said. "Our physiology is hard-wired for two purposes: survival and/or protection and connection. Personal protection comes first. That's the role of the amygdala in the brain. It's always on."

A person's primary reaction to a perceived danger happens in milliseconds and is largely not something that can be controlled. It ultimately keeps one safe, Johnson said.

But reactions or emotional responses can be moderated and should be. Otherwise the body is constantly flooded with chemicals that can do serious physical damage over time.

The triggers (which can be be something as simple as looking at a spouse's facial expression, or something as serious as recalling abuse) can be adjusted.

"We want to stay in control so it's not so easy to go over the edge," Johnson said.

Often a person will assigned himself an "attribution" due to a stressful situation, such as "I am stupid," "I am bad" or "I am worthless," even though it's not an accurate or true summation, he explained.

Those thoughts can then loop and become a source of chronic stress, he said.

"We need to cut ourselves and our spouse some slack," he said.
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