Spouses Who Fight Live Longer

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A good argument with your spouse could be just what the doctor ordered.

Preliminary results from a survey of married couples suggest that disputing husbands and wives who hold in their anger die earlier than expressive couples.

"When couples get together, one of their main jobs is reconciliation about conflict," said researcher Ernest Harburg, professor emeritus with the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Psychology Department. "Usually nobody is trained to do this. If they have good parents, they can imitate, that's fine, but usually the couple is ignorant about the process of resolving conflict."

So while conflict is inevitable, the critical matter is how couples resolve it.

"The key matter is, when the conflict happens, how do you resolve it?" Harburg said. "When you don't, if you bury your anger, and you brood on it and you resent the other person or the attacker, and you don't try to resolve the problem, then you're in trouble."

The findings add to past research showing that the release of anger can be healthy. For instance, one study revealed when people are angry they tend to make better decisions, perhaps because this emotion triggers the brain to ignore irrelevant cues and focus on the meat of the matter. Individuals who express anger might also have a sense of control and optimism over a situation, according to another past study.

Bottled anger adds to stress, which tends to shorten lives, many studies show.

In the current study, the authors suggest a combination of factors to explain the higher mortality for couples who don't express their anger. These include "mutual anger suppression, poor communication (of feelings and issues) and poor problem-solving with medical consequences," they write in the January issue of the Journal of Family Communication.

Over a 17-year period, Harburg and his colleagues studied 192 married couples in which spouses ranged in age from 35 to 69, focusing on aggressive behavior considered unfair or undeserved by the person being "attacked." Harburg said that if an attack is viewed as fair, the victim doesn't tend to get angry.

Based on the participants' anger-coping responses to hypothetical situations, Harburg placed couples into one of four categories: both partners express their anger; the wife expresses anger; the husband communicates anger while the other suppresses; and both the husband and wife brood and suppress their anger.

The researchers found that 26 couples, meaning 52 individuals, were suppressors in which both partners held in their anger. Twenty-five percent of the suppressors died during the study period compared with about 12 percent for the other remaining couples.

In 27 percent of the suppressor couples, one member of the couple died during the study period, and in 23 percent of those couples, both died during the study period. That's compared to only 6 percent of couples where both spouses died in the remaining three groups combined. Only 19 percent in the remaining three groups combined saw one partner die during the study period.

The results held even when other health factors were accounted for, including age, smoking, weight, blood pressure, bronchial problems, breathing and cardiovascular risk.

Harburg said the results are preliminary, and his team is now collecting 30-year follow-up data. He expects the follow-up to show almost double the death rate compared with the preliminary findings.

Live Science Staff
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