Strife at Home Can Make You Sick
Disagreements between feuding spouses that continue without satisfying resolution could take a significant toll on one’s health, researchers at Ohio State University conclude. Among those who argued with ineffective conflict management skills, immune systems can be weakened and stress hormones increased.
In two trials involving 120 couples, psychologists found that partners involved in relationship disputes were at risk for sickness. The findings were similar across the marriage spectrum of participants, whether a couple was newly married or wed for many years.
One study focused on newlyweds, the other on husbands and wives married an average of 42 years. Clinicians involved with the study conclude that, with proper conflict resolution, marriage partners can enjoy less stress through real listening and honest sharing of feelings and attitudes. The men studied were more likely to withdraw from or tune out during arguments, while the women were more likely to be distressed about the argument well after a heated dispute.
With the study, mental health practitioners who try to save marriages–counselors, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, clergy–now have the science to prove that arguments between couples can lead to battles inside the body. Long term health effects are not yet known.
Ohio State researchers studied many couples, both newlyweds and couples who have been married for decades. They measured the stress hormones in their blood. Couples were brought in for joint counselling sessions on current disputes. Blood was analyzed intermittently.
The presence of the hormones are found to be linked not to the disagreements themselves, but to the way couples fight and resolve (or don’t resolve) conflicts. “They all had a problem that they were talking about, but those who talked about it in a hostile and negative way are the ones who had the negative immune effects,” reports Dr. George Solomon, MD, professor of psychiatry at University of California Los Angeles.
Solomon studies the way in which mind and the immune system interact. He says it’s important for couples to learn how to deal with the conflicts and stress that are inevitable in any committed relationship. In the study of the older couples, abrasive arguments were tied to a weakening of certain aspects of immune response.
Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD of OSU’s new Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research who was involved in both studies, says that the findings from those headed toward golden anniversaries were more unexpected than the findings from the newlyweds. “You might expect that arguments would have less impact on older couples because they’ve gone through these disagreements many times before and have learned to deal with them,” says Kiecolt-Glaser. “But that’s not the case.”
Besides raised stress hormone levels, the older couples with weaker immune measures also described their usual marital disagreements as more negative.
In the study of newlyweds, researchers concluded that one key to lowering the stress during a couple’s arguments is to concentrate on the issues at hand and reduce the amount of negative responses that result. The style of the fighting is most important. “The sarcasm, name-calling and back-biting are the problems,” says Dr. Ronald Glaser, PhD, another researcher involved in the OSU study.
Of particular interest was the continued elevated stress hormone levels of the women having husbands who withdrew from the arguments. “We’re probably seeing the results of the women thinking about and reliving the argument throughout the day,” Kiecolt-Glaser says.
According to the researchers, while changes in immune response were seen in both newlywed and older couples, the effects may have greater consequences in older people as their immune systems are already waning. “Older adults have greater rates of illness and death due to infectious diseases compared to younger people,” Kiecolt-Glaser says. “Additional stress, such as from marital arguments, may put them at greater risk.”