Dr. Wall comments on a recent New York Times article on the negative effects of fighting in marriage. Disagreements are normal in marriage. Being mean about it is another thing altogether.
Several years ago I had a heart attack. After an angioplasty and then later, after by-pass surgery, I was back at work. For the next year I starting having a very creepy experience: Whenever a couple started getting into a fight in my office, my heart would literally hurt. I started wondering if my job was killing me. I also started being a lot more assertive in preventing couples from getting into it in my office. You can ask my friend and colleague, Craig Butterfield. He’s an expert in helping conflictual couples settled down. He’s my go-to guy. If you insist on using my office to fight with your spouse, and I am not able to convey to you that you can’t do that in my office, then I will refer you to Craig. You can ask him. I know my limits.
It’s too bad everyone heart doesn’t literally hurt when they start to fight in a mean way. Maybe they’d see what is really going on inside when couples refuse to back down. Unfortunately, if you insist on a regular diet of animosity in your marriage your body will be negatively impacted even if you are not aware. So will your spouse. So will your kids. So will society as a whole.
A recent article in the New York Times explained the latest research on this topic. Tara Parker-Pope wrote in last Sunday’s edition (April 17, 2010) in her article “Is Marriage Good For Your Helath?” that for 150 years researchers have documented
the “marriage advantage”: the fact that married people, on average, appear to be healthier and live longer than unmarried people.
Parker-Pope summarized the latest research by writing:
Contemporary studies, for instance, have shown that married people are less likely to get pneumonia, have surgery, develop cancer or have heart attacks. A group of Swedish researchers has found that being married or cohabiting at midlife is associated with a lower risk for dementia. A study of two dozen causes of death in the Netherlands found that in virtually every category, ranging from violent deaths like homicide and car accidents to certain forms of cancer, the unmarried were at far higher risk than the married.
But, she writes, “the marriage advantage” has been shown to not extend to couples who marry and then later divorce nor to people who live in stressful marriages. The research is finding that people in conflictual marriages do worse than single people and people who divorce do worse than single people. Thus, to divorce does not necessarily solve your problems! In fact, your problems may even accelerate and increase!
I hear too many people tell me that because they have a stressful or conflictual marriage that they need to divorce. They rightly conclude that the conflict they are having with their spouses is negatively affecting everyone. True, true and true. But then they wrongly conclude that divorce is the solution. Who fights more than divorced people! Ahhh! Everything bugs them. Now we’ve all got even MORE reasons to be upset and hurt. Maybe we should figure this out.
Parker-Pope reported that two researchers (who are married to each other!) at Ohio State University College of Medicine, Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser have been researching the effect of marital conflict on physical health. One of their projects would slightly blister the subjects on their skin:
Each married couple, after their forearms were subjected to the blistering procedure, were asked to talk together for a half-hour: on one occasion they discussed topics chosen to elicit the couples’ supportive behaviors; on another day, after undergoing the blistering procedures again, they discussed topics selected to evoke conflict and tension and tried to resolve them. Before subjecting others to the blistering regimen, each of the Glasers had the device secured to his or her respective forearm to have his or her skin blistered.
The results were remarkable. After the blistering sessions in which couples argued, their wounds took, on average, a full day longer to heal than after the sessions in which the couples discussed something pleasant. Among couples who exhibited especially high levels of hostility while bickering, the wounds took a full two days longer to heal than those of couples who had showed less animosity while fighting.
…The Glasers’ findings help explain epidemiological data showing that couples in troubled marriages appear to be more susceptible to illness than happier couples… the study offered compelling evidence that a hostile fight with your husband or wife isn’t just bad for your relationship. It can have a profound toll on your body.
She writes that regular, repeated, negative conflict in marriage can have a devastating effect on your health:
Other researchers have also studied how the “drip, drip” of negativity can erode not only a marriage itself but also a couple’s physical health. A number of epidemiological studies suggest that unhappily married couples are at higher risk for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease than happily married couples. In 2000, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a three-year Swedish study of 300 women who had been hospitalized with severe chest pains or a heart attack; the study found that those who reported the highest levels of marital stress were nearly three times as likely to suffer another heart attack or require a bypass or other procedure. It is notable that these increased risks weren’t associated with other forms of stress. For instance, women who were stressed-out at work weren’t at any higher risk for a second episode of heart problems than women who were happy in their jobs.
But divorce is no better. Parker-Pope goes on to explain the negative, long-term health effects of divorce on people:
Last year, The Journal of Health and Social Behavior published a study tracking the marital history and health of nearly 9,000 men and women in their 50s and 60s. The study, which grew out of work by researchers at the University of Chicago, found that when the married people became single again — either by divorce or because of the death of a spouse — they suffered a decline in physical health from which they never fully recovered. These men and women had 20 percent more chronic health issues, like heart disease and diabetes, than those who were still married to their first husband or wife by middle age. The divorced and widowed also had aged less gracefully, reporting more problems going up and down stairs or walking longer distances.
She also writes that remarrying doesn’t repair these negative health effects from the first marriage:
Does marrying again benefit those who divorce, in terms of health? In the Chicago study, remarriage helped only a little. It seemed to heal emotional wounds: the remarried had about the same risk for depression as the continuously married. But a second marriage didn’t seem to be enough to repair the physical damage associated with marital loss. Compared with the continuously married, people in second marriages still had 12 percent more chronic health problems and 19 percent more mobility problems. “I don’t think anyone would encourage people to stay in a marriage that is really making them miserable,” says Linda J. Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist and an author of the study. “But try harder to make it better.” Even if marital problems seem small, Waite says, the data suggest it’s wise to intervene early and try to resolve them. “If you learn to how to manage disagreement early,” she says, “then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”
If you are in a conflictual marriage your health will suffer.
If you divorce your health will suffer.
If you remarry your health will suffer.
Divorce doesn’t solve your problems.
Remarrying doesn’t solve your problems.
The Conclusion? She asked the Glasers their take-home on their research:
“Don’t fight dirty,” he advised. “You never go far enough down the road where you hurt each other. We know enough to avoid those kinds of arguments.”
Kiecolt-Glaser added that the couple’s research shows that some level of relationship stress is inevitable in even the happiest marriages. The important thing, she said, is to use those moments of stress as an opportunity to repair the relationship rather than to damage it. “It can be so uncomfortable, even in the best marriages, to have an ongoing disagreement,” she said. “It’s the pit-in-your-stomach kind of thing. But when your marital relationship is the key relationship in your life, a disagreement is really a signal to try to fix something.”
Work on your marriage!! Make the one you are in work. Don’t let your disagreements become toxic. Understand it is NORMAL for couples to disagree. Work through the disagreements. If you can’t, get some help! Learn from your mistakes! Grow up! Grab a little humility along the way. Lose the stubbornness. Realize that your spouse is NOT dumb. Realize that you are NOT always right. Realize that you both have wisdom to bring to the table. Cool it with the anger and the resentment and the bitterness and the withdrawal and the sarcasm and the snide remarks.
And if you don’t know how to do these things, give us a call. We’re in the Good Marriage Business.
Check out these other blogs from Dr. Wall on anger and disagreements in marriage:
Dr. Wall lets his mind wander on the particularly depressing theme of the propensity of wives to complain and husbands to be defensive. He should probably keep his thoughts to himself.
Dr. Wall looks at our propensity to blame our spouse for our marital problems. He finds this approach lacking and suggests a better way.
Dr. Wall explains that there are two sides of anger: a good side and a bad side. We need to learn how to listen to the good side of anger and ignore the bad side of anger.
Dr. Wall looks at the various sides of anger.
Revenge in marriage is more subtle than people realize. Beware of these tempting ways!
Dr. Wall discusses the untapped gold mine of disagreements in marriage. Couples often fight when they disagree. But Dr. Wall explains that disagreeing in marriage is actually a major strength of marriage. He suggests that instead of fighting, we stop long enough to hear the wisdom our spouse is saying.