If you’re married, you argue. It’s part of life—no one stays blissful all the time. Conflicts arise. Maybe one of you gets angry and the other withdraws…or you both get angry (sound of dishes breaking!)…or you both stonewall, pretending (and hoping) that the contentious issues will just disappear. You probably know that how you argue influences the quality of your marriage. Chances are, you also know that yelling at each other or sulking isn’t good for anyone’s health.
But did you know that your marital argument style can predict exactly what kind of health problems you’ll have 20 years later? That’s the remarkable finding from a long-term study that tracked married couples over two decades.
One style of arguing is bad for your heart. The other contributes to muscle and joint problems. And as any married couple can attest, it’s not just how you behave in spats that matters—how your spouse argues can affect your health, too.
Read on to find out how your argument style will affect your future health—and what to do about it now.
A 15-MINUTE SPAT PREDICTS YOUR HEALTH FUTURE
In our research, we’ve tracked an initial sample of 156 couples over 20 years. At the beginning of the study, one group of couples was in their 40s… the another group in their 60s. By the end of the study, the couples were in their 60s and 80s, respectively.
Four times over the course of the study, they were asked to come into a lab and engage in three different conversations, each about 15 minutes long…
- A chat about the day’s events
- A discussion of an issue of ongoing disagreement in their marriage
- A conversation about something that they enjoyed doing together.
We analyzed the couples’ interactions and argument styles and tracked their physical symptoms at each of the four visits. What we discovered is that the way participants handled conflict in their marriages predicted the types of physical symptoms they would develop over the course of 20 years. We found that…
- Angry behavior—exhibiting irritation, annoyance, frustration or either overt or constrained anger—during marital conflict forecast the development over time of ongoing cardiovascular symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, blood pressure elevations and/or shortness of breath. This was particularly true for husbands.
- Stonewalling behavior—such as withdrawing, tuning out, becoming physically rigid or physically or verbally unexpressive—during conflict forecast the emergence of musculoskeletal symptoms such as severe pain in the arms or legs, chronic stiffness of the muscles and joints or back pain. This, too, was particularly true for husbands.
The connections between argument styles and health issues didn’t show up at first. But over a little more than a decade, they became clear. In essence, you could look back at the marital sessions and by their nature predict what kind of health problems the husbands and, to a degree, the wives would experience 20 years later.
MIND/BODY CONNECTIONS ARE REAL
How can your arguing style affect your physical health? The key lies not in the immediate effects of any particular argument but in a style of marital disagreements that can become chronic.
Let’s start with anger. When you’re angry, your entire cardiovascular system is in a heightened state. Over time, if that tendency to react in anger becomes chronic, that “activation” often leads to injuries to the inner lining of the blood vessels, which contributes to plaque formation and the development of high blood pressure. On the other hand, stonewalling is linked to heightened muscle tension. One possible explanation is that muscle tension puts extra stress on your joints, which can increase inflammation. Over time, chronic tension in this system can lead to the development of musculoskeletal symptoms such as stiff joints and/or back pain.
The mind/body connection works the other way, too. In the study, when husbands had musculoskeletal symptoms such as back pain, it increased the likelihood that we would observe stonewalling behavior in future interactions. Back pain essentially predicted stonewalling behavior. For wives, cardiovascular symptoms such as high blood pressure predicted an increase in angry behavior. An observational study such as this can’t establish cause and effect, but it does suggest that physical symptoms may contribute to the way we interact with our spouses. More research will be needed to understand how this happens.
How your spouse reacts during an argument may also affect your own health. In the study, when wives exhibited sad behavior—crying, sighing, pouting or acting helpless—it predicted increases in cardiovascular symptoms for their husbands. When husbands exhibited sad behavior, on the other hand, it predicted an increase in their wives’ musculoskeletal symptoms over time. Here’s what may be going on: While sadness can elicit feelings of sympathy and empathy for one’s spouse—and that’s a good thing—having to be the caregiver in a relationship may also be a burden to one’s health.
HEALTHY WAYS TO HANDLE CONFLICT IN YOUR MARRIAGE
Any way you slice it, the study’s findings are a wake-up call to take a closer look at how you manage conflicts in your marriage. While marital arguing styles tended to be persistent in our study—that is, spouses who tended to react in anger at the beginning did so at the end of the study, too—that doesn’t mean they are inevitable. Indeed, this research points the way to the kinds of intervention that may not only improve marital relations but improve health as well.
For example, if you are routinely hotheaded, it’s likely that anger may bubble up in other aspects of your life as well. Consider ways to take charge of your anger to protect your health, including the right way to get angry. Here’s a simple exercise that helps you derail any emotional overreaction. If it continues to be a problem, consider working with a psychologist on anger management techniques.
On the other hand, if you tend to withdraw during a conflict, you can benefit from learning to resist the impulse to bottle up your emotions. One approach that can help with dealing with an always critical person is assertive humility. The Gottman Institute, which features a research-based approach to strengthening relationships, has an excellent blog post about stonewalling.
To have healthier spats, though, it takes more than working on your own emotional reactions. It takes two. Discover measured, constructive ways to argue with your spouse, to talk to each other, and even to improve your marriage in just seven minutes.
Change is hard, especially in long-term relationships. But learning new ways to resolve the inevitable conflicts of even the strongest marriage may benefit not just your marriage but also your health.