Anger in marital spat tied to heart problems

Researchers at two U.S. universities have found that outbursts of anger during a marital spat can lead to cardiovascular problems later in life.

And conversely, shutting down emotionally or “stonewalling” during conflict raises the risk of musculoskeletal ailments such as a bad back or stiff muscles, according to a new research from University of California, Berkeley, and Northwestern University.

These findings, in a study based on 20 years of data and published on Tuesday in the journal Emotion, “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 UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study.

The researchers excluded such factors as age, education, exercise, smoking, alcohol use and caffeine consumption.

Overall, the link between emotions and health outcomes was most pronounced for husbands, but some of the key correlations were found in wives.

Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University and lead author of the study, said the researchers “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.”

The study is one of several led by Levenson, who looks at the inner workings of long-term marriages.

Participants are part of a cohort 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.

Each five years, the couples were videotaped in a laboratory setting as they discussed events in their lives and areas of disagreement and enjoyment.

Their interactions were rated by expert behavioral coders for a wide range of emotions and behaviors based on facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.

In addition, the spouses completed a battery of questionnaires that included a detailed assessment of specific health problems.

To track displays of anger, the researchers monitored the videotaped 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, they looked for what researchers refer to as “away” behavior, which includes facial stiffness, rigid neck muscles, and little or no eye contact. That data was then linked to health symptoms, measured every five years over a 20-year span.

As results, the researchers identified that the spouses who were observed during their conversations to fly off the handle more easily were at greater risk of developing chest pain, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems over time; alternately, those who stonewalled by barely speaking and avoiding eye contact were more likely to develop backaches, stiff necks or joints and general muscle tension.

“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 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,” he said. (Xinhua)