Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fighting With Your Spouse Can Help You Live Longer

From a January 23 Reuters article:

"Fighting with your spouse can actually be good for your health with people who bottle it all up found to die earlier, a new study shows.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and its Psychology Department released preliminary findings after 17 years of following 192 couples.

The couples fell into four categories: where both partners expressed anger when they felt unfairly attacked, where neither partner expressed their anger, and one category each for where the wife suppressed her feelings and where the husband did so."

"I would say that if you don't express your feelings to your partner and tell them what the problem is when you're unfairly attacked, then you're in trouble," said Ernest Harburg, lead author of the study, in an interview.

The study found that those who kept their anger in were twice as likely to die earlier than those who don't."

"'When couples get together, one of their main jobs is reconciliation about conflict,' Harburg said."

Here's the press release about this study.



It's not surprising that the ability to express anger and to reconcile conflict is healthy. We know this in our bodies. We can almost feel the sludge of silent resentments and veiled bitterness congeal our arteries and stiffen our limbs. Forcing one's face into a mask of neutrality when the heart has been poisoned by unacknowledged wounds eventually dilutes the ability to express any emotion with full authenticity. When we constrict rage, we limit joy. When we hide from fear, we lose love.

This may sound illogical, contradictory.

I believe we have an emotional range that stretches from the horrible to the sublime, from the purest hate to the profoundest love. The pendulum of our awareness swings back and forth over this spectrum. If we limit its sweep on the dark side, its reach into the light is similarly checked. Babies know this and show us how it's done. When they awake in the middle of the night they shriek with the terror of utter aloneness. When Mom or Dad appear the world is restored, and there is no higher joy or sweeter smile.

The key lies in Harburg's statement: "When couples get together, one of their main jobs is reconciliation about conflict."

How to reconcile, to experience and express the caustic edges of rage and then find the path back to intimacy. To be so divided and then to reintegrate. T.S. Eliot asks of us, "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?" We might ask of ourselves, where there is love, after such knowledge, what else but forgiveness.

So back to the key -- how to reconcile after the anger and the desperate disappointment have left their stain on our memory. The key lies in the difference between feeling and expressing. In our private cell, we may feel the violence. But in the space between that zone and our partner's heart, we must take a moment to build a cradle to carry our feelings, a cradle cushioned with the remembrance of love.

There are practical ways of reconciling, of bringing what seems broken back together again. But that's for another posting.