If you tend to use an unhealthy mode of fighting with your partner — whether it’s releasing a fury of emotions or shutting down completely — you may be heading for specific health problems, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University.
Their findings show that outbursts of anger are linked to cardiovascular issues, while shutting down emotionally is tied to a bad back or stiff muscles. These links were particularly true for men.
“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,” said University of California, Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study.
The study is one of several led by Levenson, who researches the inner dynamics of long-term marriages. Participants are part of a group of 156 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples in the San Francisco Bay Area whose relationships Levenson and fellow researchers have tracked since 1989. The surviving spouses who participated in the study are now in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s.
The connections between emotions and health outcomes were most pronounced for husbands, but some of the key correlations were also found in wives. It did not take the researchers long to guess which spouses would develop ailments down the road based on how they reacted during disagreements.
“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,” said study lead author Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.
The findings could encourage emotionally explosive people to participate in interventions such as anger management, while people who withdraw during conflict might benefit from resisting the impulse to bottle up their emotions, the researchers said.
“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.”
For the study, the couples were videotaped in a laboratory setting every five years. They were asked to talk about events in their lives and to discuss areas of disagreement and enjoyment.
Based on these interactions, each spouse was rated by expert behavioral coders for a wide range of emotions and behaviors based on their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Furthermore, the spouses completed a battery of questionnaires that included a detailed assessment of specific health problems.
The researchers focused on health outcomes linked to anger and an emotion-suppressing behavior they refer to as “stonewalling.” They also looked at sadness and fear as predictors of these health outcomes, but did not find any significant links.
“Our findings suggest particular emotions expressed in a relationship predict vulnerability to particular health problems, and those emotions are anger and stonewalling,” Levenson said.
To identify anger, the researchers monitored the conversations for such behaviors as lips pressed together, knitted brows, voices raised, or lowered beyond their normal tone and tight jaws. To identify stonewalling behavior, researchers looked for “away” behavior, which includes facial stiffness, rigid neck muscles, and little or no eye contact.
This data was then linked to health problems, measured every five years over a 20-year span.
The spouses who appeared to be hot-headed were more likely to develop chest pain, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems over time; while spouses who stonewalled by barely speaking and avoiding eye contact were more likely to develop backaches, stiff necks or joints, and general muscle tension.
“For years, we’ve known that negative emotions are associated with negative health outcomes, but this study dug deeper to find that specific emotions are linked to specific health problems,” Levenson said. “This is one of the many ways that our emotions provide a window for glimpsing important qualities of our future lives.”
The findings are published in the journal Emotion.