The researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and Northwestern University1 have been studying the same couples for over 20 years. That’s a lot of arguments!
Lead by Alice Levenson and Claudia Hasse, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Norhtwestern University, the study tracked 156 middle aged as well as older, couples.
“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 behaviours can predict the development of different health problems in the long run.”
The study controlled for external elements such as age, education, exercise, smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption, all known to influence health and followed participants who are now in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
“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 behaviours that they showed during these 15 minutes,” said Haase.
The link between emotional wellbeing and health, much debated over the years, has been shown to have a long-term impact on certain types of emotional responses to arguments. Those displaying anger, that is by showing physical displays such as raised voices, knitted brows, lips pressed together and tight jaws, had the most pronounced health relationship, linking specifically with cardio-vascular illness. They were also found to be at a greater risk of developing chest pain and high blood pressure.
Those who were silent, or engaged in emotional suppressive behaviour referred to be the researchers as ‘stonewalling’ in arguments, such as refusing to talk and avoiding eye contact, were more likely to develop backaches, stiff necks and general muscle tension.
“Our findings suggest particular emotions expressed in a relationship predict vulnerability to particular health problems, and those emotions are anger and stonewalling,” Levenson said.
These findings articulate what has been a longstanding theoretical concern over the association between interpersonal emotional behaviours and physical health.
“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.”
Essentially what this new information brings to light is an ability to intervene and manage emotional responses in order to address major health issues.
So the next time you feel like exploding in anger at your partner, or turning your back and not speaking to them for a week. Have think about the ramifications to your heart and your back. Sometimes words said in anger aren’t just words you can’t take back, they might just be hurting you more than they hurt someone else.
 Haase, Claudia M.; Holley, Sarah; Bloch, Lian; Verstaen, Alice; Levenson, Robert W. Interpersonal Emotional Behaviors and Physical Health: A 20-Year Longitudinal Study of Long-Term Married Couples.. Emotion, 2016