Marital arguments—or avoidance—may lower immune function

None of us enjoys having those “tough” conversations with our spouse. You know the ones—about finances, parenting differences, or dividing up the household chores more equally—that often lead to an argument or one or both spouses withdrawing altogether.

And while these uncomfortable spats can quickly lead to emotional distress and bad feelings about the relationship, new research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinologyindicates that these destructive interaction patterns may also lead to chronic inflammation and lowered immune function for one or both spouses.

Revisiting an old study

The new study looked at data from a landmark 2005 Ohio State University study that showed how psychological stress between 42 heterosexual married couples (who had been together for an average of 12 years) could affect immunity for at least a day.

The original research, which included a variety of methods for assessing communication patterns, also included baseline testing of proinflammatory proteins in the blood and a device to raise small blisters on each participant’s forearm in order to track the progress of healing.

Wound healing was measured for a total of 12 days by measuring fluid accumulation and peripheral blood samples. Among the most tangible results: wounds on the “hostile” couples healed at only 60% of the rate of couples considered to have low levels of hostility.

Deeper understanding with new analysis

The more recent research using statistical modeling of the qualitative and biological data showed that mutual avoidance or demand/withdrawal had detrimental effects on both inflammation and immune function measures.

“If they were more negative typically on a day-to-day basis, and were negative in those specific interactions, they rated the discussion more negatively and less positively, they felt fewer positive emotions, and their wounds healed more slowly,” explains Ohio State Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research postdoctoral researcher and first author Rosie Shrout. “That chronic negativity and acute negativity had emotional, relational and immune effects—most notably on women.”

Some of the other specific findings from the study include:

• Wounds healed more slowly in couples who mutually avoided talking about tough topics.

• Even when the couples who mutually avoided talking about tough topics were more positive while trying to resolve their issues, that positivity did nothing to heal their wounds more quickly.

One solution? The lead researcher says that therapy may be able help couples learn better communication skills.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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