mature couple arguing
Marriage
Relationships & Love

Rage and "Stonewalling" Linked to Different Health Problems

Conflict can cause health problems – but exactly what kind of problem depends on whether you let your rage out or shut down emotionally.

New research from UC Berkeley and Northwestern University, based on how couples behave during conflicts, suggests outbursts of anger predict cardiovascular problems later in life.

Conversely, shutting down emotionally or “stonewalling” during conflict, raises the risk of musculoskeletal ailments such as a bad back or stiff muscles.

“Our findings 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 study, published in the journal Emotion, is based on 20 years of data. It controlled for 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 also found in wives. It did not take the researchers long to guess which spouses would develop ailments down the road based on how they reacted to disagreements.

“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 behaviors that they showed during these 15 minutes,” said study lead author Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University.

The findings could spur hotheaded people to consider such interventions as anger management, while people who withdraw during conflict might benefit from resisting the impulse to bottle up their emotions, the researchers said.

“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.”

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.

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