Fighting couple
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How couple conflict affects your health

By Sarah Moses Saturday, June 25, 2016 - 01:00
How do you and your partner fight? The way you deal with couple conflict could have a major effect on your health, according to this study.

Fights, arguments, bickering, whatever you want to call it, conflict happens in every relationship. People deal with the intense emotions that inevitably arise during conflict differently – or in some cases, they don’t deal with them at all.

Emotions get physical

Research has shown there are plenty of connections between our emotions and our health. That means it matters whether you’re the kind of person who gets angry, or sad, or you swallow your emotions.

But even though this link is well known, there hasn’t been a lot of research on specific emotions and health in the context of long-term relationships. Until this study, that is. Not that it’s exactly new – it’s part of research on Californian couples that started back in 1989.

Every five years for 20 years, the couples took a trip to the lab, where researchers filmed them having three 15-minute conversations. First, they chatted about whatever was going on in their lives, then they discussed a topic they disagreed on, and finally they were asked to recall something they enjoyed doing together.

The researchers then watched the videos to see what was going on, making note of the kinds of emotions each partner was going through during the conversation with the disagreement. They looked at things like their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. The couples also filled in questions about different aspects of their health.

Over the years, the researchers were able to analyse all the data they’d collected to find out whether there was a link between health and specific emotions that arise during conflict.

Are you a hot-head or a cool cucumber?

The way people deal with couple conflict can have a major impact on their health in the future, the researchers learned. If you’re the kind of person who gets angry and blows up to the point of exploding in a fight, heart problems like high blood pressure could be a concern down the road, the research showed.

On the other hand, if you totally shut down and flat out ignore your partner when a disagreement arises, chances are you’ll face a different kind of health problem. People who don’t deal with their emotions in a fight are likely to have bone ailments, like backaches, or stiff muscles, the study found.

This was mostly true for men, although there was also a connection between these emotions and health problems in women.

How do our emotional responses to conflict affect our health? Take a look at your partner the next time they’re angry or they shut down during a fight. You’ll probably notice that their facial expressions and body language changes. But that’s not all that’s likely going on. Emotions can prickle parts of the nervous and hormonal systems. Over time, anger could regularly rev up the cardiovascular system, leading to heart problems.

Any suggestions?

So the next time you and your partner are in the middle of a heated argument, and he or she blows up at you, just tell them to relax. After all, you’ve got their heart health in mind. And if he or she walks off as cool as a cucumber and refuses to budge, you might want to point out they run the risk of an aching back and sore muscles in the not-so-distant future.

Easier said than done, you’re probably thinking. Good thing the researchers have some suggestions. The hot-headed among us might do well with a course on anger management, while those who tend to block their emotions could probably benefit from learning to let them out.

Source: Interpersonal Emotional Behaviors and Physical Health: A 20-Year Longitudinal Study of Long-Term Married Couples (2016). Emotion.

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