How You Argue Will Affect Your Health — and Relationship

Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 27, 2016  | Last Updated: July 27, 2016


My partner for many years used to leave when we had a quarrel — over the years, when we lived separately, he walked out of the apartment and went home, and he left me in subways, hotel rooms, and crowded streets. I knew that if we had a fight he would flee. 

Over the years, nothing much was ever resolved.  

My partner eventually needed surgery for debilitating back pain. 


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It turns out that what psychologists call “stone-walling” — ending conversations or withdrawing emotionally — is linked to stiff muscles and back or neck pain, according to research with 20 years of data. 

On the other hand, angry outbursts during a quarrel with a spouse predict heart trouble down the road. 

“We looked at marital-conflict conversations that lasted just 15 minutes and could predict the development of health problems over 20 years for husbands,” said study lead author Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.

The senior author, University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Robert Levenson, has led several studies using data from 156 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples in the San Francisco Bay Area, which his team began tracking in 1989. The surviving participants are now in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

Each five years, the team videotaped the couples in a lab as they discussed events in their lives and areas of disagreement and enjoyment. The couples also completed questionnaires about their health. 

The team analyzed the tapes for evidence of anger: lips pressed tight, knitted brows, tight jaws, and loud or hissing lowered voices. Withdrawal or “away” behavior included facial stiffness, a rigid neck, and avoiding eye contact.

The study also noted signs of sadness and fear but didn’t see any links to future health issues. 

So what can you do to fight in ways that don’t make you sick or destroy your bond? All couples have conflict, about issues that can’t ever be resolved completely. Happy couples aren’t uniquely free of trouble. Their secret is how they fight. 

They keep humor and affection flowing, making small gestures or jokes even in the midst of battle. 

Couples researcher John Gottman has identified the big mistakes that break up couples. Guard against making critical assessments of your partner. Instead of saying “You’re so cheap” you might say, “Did you dislike the service? I’m embarrassed when we don’t leave the usual tip.” 

Also resist defensiveness. Let’s say your wife just said she was embarrassed by your tip. Responding, “I took you out to dinner, didn’t I?” will tell her you’re not willing to listen to how she feels and she’s likely to get angrier. On the other hand, saying something like, “I didn’t realize you were embarrassed. I’m feeling stressed about money, honey; I wish we had more of a cushion,” will bring you closer.  

If you ignore her comment, walk out of the restaurant ahead of her and remain silent on the drive home you are stone-walling. Marriages tend to end when too many issues remain undiscussed and distance grows. You can say, “I need a little time to respond to that” and pick up the thread later. This shows your partner that you’re taking care of yourself rather than trying to hurt her. 

My partner would in fact show up again to talk it over. Still, his many abrupt departures helped make the relationship fragile, despite much love, and we didn’t last. 


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