Brain and Body

How Couples Argue Can Predict Specific Health Problems Later in Life, Study Finds

May 25, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

A couple arguing, yelling at each other
Photo credit: Vic/flickr (CC by 2.0)

Anger was tied to heart problems, and “stonewalling” to back pain.

After combing through 20 years of data, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of California, Berkeley, have concluded that how couples behave during conflicts can predict specific health problems later in life.

In particular, sudden bursts of anger were tied to cardiovascular problems, and “stonewalling,” or shutting down emotionally, was linked to a higher risk of back pain or stiff muscles.

"Our findings reveal a new level of precision in how emotions are linked to health, and how our behaviors over time can predict the development of negative health outcomes," senior author UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson said in a press statement.

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The results, which have been published in the journal Emotion, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychological Association, show that the link between emotions and later health outcomes was most pronounced for husbands, but wives also displayed some of the key correlations.

Even after the researchers controlled for factors like age, education, exercise, alcohol use, smoking, and caffeine consumption, they were able to quickly predict which spouses would develop specific health problems down the road.

"We looked at marital-conflict conversations that lasted just 15 minutes and could predict the development of health problems over 20 years for husbands based on the emotional behaviors that they showed during these 15 minutes," study lead author Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University, said in the press release.

The participants in the study are part of a cohort of 156 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples in the San Francisco Bay area, and their relationships have been tracked by Levenson and fellow researchers since 1989.

Every five years, the couples were videotaped in a laboratory setting while they discussed the events in their lives — both areas of disagreement and enjoyment.

Then, their interactions were analyzed by expert behavioral coders for a wide range of emotions and behaviors through their body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.

To track down displays of anger, the researchers looked out for behaviors like knitted brows, lips pressed together, tight jaws, and voices raised or lowered beyond their normal tone. To identify stonewalling, they noted facial stiffness, rigid neck muscles, and little or no eye contact — what the researchers referred to as “away” behavior.

The participants were also asked to complete an array of questionnaires that assessed specific health problems they encountered.

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The researchers concluded that those who displayed more traits of anger during their conversations were at a greater risk of developing chest pain, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems over time. Those who showed the traits of stonewalling were more likely to develop back problems, general muscle tension, and stiff necks or joints.

"Conflict happens in every marriage, but people deal with it in different ways. Some of us explode with anger; some of us shut down," Haase said. "Our study shows that these different emotional behaviors can predict the development of different health problems in the long run."

Levenson says that the link between negative emotions and negative health outcomes isn’t new, but this study “dug deeper” to find specific emotions that are tied to specific health problems.

"This is one of the many ways that our emotions provide a window for glimpsing important qualities of our future lives,” he concluded.

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