Do you enter a fit of rage when arguing with your partner? Or do you completely shut down? Either way, you’re not doing any favors for your health. According to a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern University, how you react during a conflict with your partner might have serious consequences to your health.
For the study, published in Emotion, researchers looked at the relationships of 156 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples. Robert Levenson, the study author, tracked these couples since 1989. Every five years, the couples came into a lab and gave testimonials about what was happening in their lives, as well as the agreeable and tenuous points of their relationships. The interactions were coded and tracked for behavioral analysis and the spouses completed detailed surveys about their health.
Researchers looked for lips pressed together, knitted brows, tight jaws and raised or hushed voices as signs of anger. Signs of “stonewalling,” or shutting down emotionally during conflict, included a stiff face, rigid neck muscles and avoidance of eye contact.
At the end of the decade-long study, researchers found a distinctive link between these two conflict reactions and overall health: those who experienced outbursts of rage in reaction to their partner during the testimonials were more likely to have a cardiovascular problem at the end of the study. Those who stonewalled their partners had an increased risk of musculoskeletal ailments like back and muscle pain. Researchers found this effect even after controlling for age, education, exercise, smoking, alcohol use and caffeine consumption. The correlation was true for both partners, but was more pronounced for husbands.
The conflict that lasted just 15 minutes or less predicted the development of health problems for husbands 20 years in the future, said Claudia Haase, study author, in a statement. Researchers could, effectively, guess which ailment would strike which partner all based on how they reacted to the disagreement.
Need help keeping your anger (whatever way it manifests) at bay? Here, 16 ways to manage your frustration, whether you have a quick temper of a biting sense of humor.