Arguing is an inevitable part of married life. But now researchers are putting the marital spat under the microscope to see if the way you fight with your spouse can affect your health.
Recent studies show that how often couples fight or what they fight about usually doesn’t matter. Instead, it’s the nuanced interactions between men and women, and how they react to and resolve conflict, that appear to make a meaningful difference in the health of the marriage and the health of the couple.
A study of nearly 4,000 men and women from Framingham, Mass., asked whether they typically vented their feelings or kept quiet in arguments with their spouse. Notably, 32 percent of the men and 23 percent of the women said they typically bottled up their feelings during a marital spat.
In men, keeping quiet during a fight didn’t have any measurable effect on health. But women who didn’t speak their minds in those fights were four times as likely to die during the 10-year study period as women who always told their husbands how they felt, according to the July report in Psychosomatic Medicine. Whether the woman reported being in a happy marriage or an unhappy marriage didn’t change her risk.
The tendency to bottle up feelings during a fight is known as self-silencing. For men, it may simply be a calculated but harmless decision to keep the peace. But when women stay quiet, it takes a surprising physical toll.
“When you’re suppressing communication and feelings during conflict with your husband, it’s doing something very negative to your physiology, and in the long term it will affect your health,” said Elaine Eaker, an epidemiologist in Gaithersburg, Md., who was the study’s lead author. “This doesn’t mean women should start throwing plates at their husbands, but there needs to be a safe environment where both spouses can equally communicate.”