A marriage made in hormones

Photo by Flickr user winged photography. Click for sourceThe New York Times has a fantastic article on how the way married couples relate to each other can have a major impact on health, although there are many intriguing interpersonal subtleties that go beyond simply being in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ relationship.

The piece reviews the extensive evidence on how stress impacts on the immune system and discusses how, in general, marriage has a host of health benefits. However, relationship conflict can have some dramatic negative effects on well-being. In one eye-opening study just getting couples to discuss a marital disagreement slowed minor wound healing down by up to a day.

One of the most interesting bits of the article tackles the link between risk for heart disease and arguing style, noting that even in happy couples, specific ways of resolving disputes had an impact on health – although interestingly different styles had a different effect on men and women.

The women in his study who were at highest risk for signs of heart disease were those whose marital battles lacked any signs of warmth, not even a stray term of endearment during a hostile discussion (“Honey, you’re driving me crazy!”) or a minor pat on the back or squeeze of the hand, all of which can signal affection in the midst of anger. “Most of the literature assumes that it’s how bad the arguments get that drives the effect, but it’s actually the lack of affection that does it,” Smith told me. “It wasn’t how much nasty talk there was. It was the lack of warmth that predicted risk.”

For men, on the other hand, hostile and negative marital battles seemed to have no effect on heart risk. Men were at risk for a higher coronary calcium score, however, when their marital spats turned into battles for control. It didn’t matter whether it was the husband or wife who was trying to gain control of the matter; it was merely any appearance of controlling language that put men on the path of heart disease.

In both cases, the emotional tone of a marital fight turned out to be just as predictive of poor heart health as whether the individual smoked or had high cholesterol. It is worth noting that the couples in Smith’s study were all relatively happy. These were husbands and wives who loved each other. Yet many of them had developed styles of conflict that took a physical toll on each other. The solution, Smith noted, isn’t to stop fighting. It’s to fight more thoughtfully.

A thoroughly fascinating article.

Link to NYT piece ‘Is Marriage Good for Your Health?’.

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