According to some new research, it seems that the way married couples argue is more important than the content of those arguments. In today's New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports on a few studies that have found a link between the way spouses argue and their risk for coronary heart disease (CHD) and other illnesses.
Parker-Pope cites a recent study led by Elaine D. Eaker, an epidemiologist in Maryland, who surveyed nearly 4,000 men and women about how they act when they argue with their spouse. Did they vent their feelings or keep them bottled up (known as self-silencing)? Thirty-two percent of the men reported bottling up their feelings in a fight, while only 23 percent of women reported the same.
Then Eaker and her colleagues monitored the study participants for the next ten years. They found that women who self-silenced were four times as likely to die during that period than their more verbal counterparts. Keeping quiet for men, however, showed no apparent connection to their health.
Parker-Pope also mentions a similar study conducted by Timothy W. Smith and his colleagues at the University of Utah. In that study, the researchers videotaped married couples' interactions in order to see how the emotional tone of their discussions was associated with their risk of coronary heart disease. After being given stressful topics to discuss, such as finances, the couples' remarks were coded according to how warm or hostile they were. The results showed that among both men and women, arguing style proved to be a strong predictor of their risk for heart disease—even more than cholesterol levels or smoking.
Even more interesting is the way different arguing styles affected men and women differently. Parker-Pope explains:
The level of warmth or hostility had no effect on a man's heart health. For a man, heart risk increased if disagreements with his wife involved a battle for control. And it didn't matter whether he or his wife was the one making the controlling comments. An example of a controlling argument style showed up in one video of a man arguing with his wife about money. "You really should just listen to me on this," he told her.
Also notable is that both studies found that responses about personal satisfaction with the marriage did not correlate with any health risks. So that makes me wonder: Can these unhealthy habits be changed if spouses don't even recognize that something's wrong?