We all fight in relationships. If youre being honest with your partner conflict is inevitable. But in a novel study of 150 healthy, older, married couples mostly in their 60s Professor Tim Smith and other psychologists from the University of Utah are trying to consider how the ways we fight are related to our cardiovascular health.
As part of a larger ongoing study of married couples and heart health, they observed heterosexual married couples in a laboratory setting who were given the task of discussing a topic that was the subject of disagreements in the past. They were asked to talk about the subject for six minutes. The conversations were videotaped and coded by graduate students in terms of comments that were submissive or dominant and comments that were friendly or hostile.
For example, the comments You can be so stupid sometimes or youre too negative all the time, were coded as hostile and dominant. Comments such as Oh thats a good idea, lets do it were coded as warm and submissive. There was no mention about a sarcastic/ironic scale.
Among the studys findings:
- Hardening of the coronary arteries is more likely in women when they and their partner express hostility during marital disagreements, and more common in men when either they or their partner act in a controlling manner.
- While the level of dominance or control in arguments was not related to womens heart health, it was related to atherosclerosis in men.
- The extent to which married partners spoke to each other with hostility had no relationship to the severity of hardening of the arteries in the husbands.
To sum it all up, hostility during marital disputes was bad for womens hearts, while controlling behavior during marital disputes was bad for mens hearts.
Given the reality of how subtle intent and emotions like hostility, dominance, and submission are in communications, its hard to imagine that the findings should be generalized too far.
I also wonder about how the results are affected by the constructed nature of the videotaped discussions. While its possible, as the researchers suggest in the release that the behavior might be a muted version of what goes on at home it is equally true that when observed our behaviors change, and the ways they change are not always predictable.
In a phone conversation, Prof. Smith explained that self-reported measures of quality of relationships and relationship adjustment were part of the study. Interestingly these self-reported measures did not always correspond with communication styles in the lab setting, but the communication styles did correspond with heart health.
Another concern of mine involves the gender differences found. In the prepared release, Prof. Smith said the dimensions of quality [of relationship] that are important differ for men and women. Conventional views of harmony versus discord how warm versus hostile interactions are are indeed important for women. But a different dimension of quality is more important for men, and that has to do with power and control in relationships.
Im always a little nervous when gender differences come up in studies. First, they always presume a two gender model, which is largely discounted by those studying gender. Secondly, when you have people coding behavior you have to consider the gender stereotyping that may be happening among the people doing the coding. Is a behavior or tone from a male participant coded as aggressive when the same behavior might be coded as passive if from a female participant?
Finally, Im a bit worried about the way this research is going to be reported. The release is excellent, clear about the limitations, and reasonably detailed about methodology. But a skewed message could be gleaned that reinforces the stereotype of aggressive husbands and controlling wives.
The study is important both in the way that it begins to take apart the complexities of our relationship communication styles and also in the simple message it conveys: that the health of our relationships can impact our overall health.
Lead investigator Prof. Tim Smith put it this way, People get heart disease for lots of reasons. If someone said, Whats the most important thing I can do to protect my heart health? my first answers would be, Dont smoke, Get exercise and Eat a sensible diet. But somewhere on the list would be, Pay attention to your relationships.
About Heart Disease
Hearts Hurt When Spouses Spat: Artery Disease Tied to Hostility for Wives, Loss of Control for Husbands. University of Utah, 2006.
Published March 3, 2006.