While bickering and verbal sparring between spouses can cause emotional distress and even the metaphorical broken heart, new evidence shows that serious squabbles may also have a lasting impact on heart health.
In a small study, researchers found that some types of arguing can cause atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries—one of the major risk factors for heart disease. Various lifestyle factors, such as stress, can cause this gradual blockage of the blood vessels, but this is the first time that researchers found a measurable increase in atherosclerosis after a verbal battle.
"People get heart disease for lots of reasons." said Dr. Tim Smith, professor of psychology from the University of Utah who led the study, "If someone said, ’What’s the most important thing I can do to protect my heart health?’ my first answers would be, ’Don’t’ smoke, get exercise and eat a sensible diet.’ But somewhere on the list would be, ’Pay attention to your relationships.’"
To determine the impact of bickering on spouses’ hearts, Smith recruited 150 married couples, mostly in their 60s—the prime age when heart disease becomes a serious concern—and gave them a choice of "hot topics" to discuss. The laundry list consisted of the typical marital woes: in-laws, money, children, vacations and household chores. The couple was then given six minutes in a private room to talk about the subject while being filmed.
The tapes were then reviewed and every statement made by either spouse was scored for its degree of hostility and whether it was submissive or controlling in nature. Comments like "Oh, that’s a good idea, let’s do it." were considered to be both friendly and submissive. While if someone said, "If it’s important to you, I’ll do what you want." it was scored as less friendly, but still submissive. In comparison, a statement like, "I’ll do what you want if you get off my back." was considered to be both hostile and submissive.
The most negative of the comments like, "You can be so stupid." were scored as both hostile and dominant.
The degree of atherosclerosis in each couple was measured both before the session and two days later with a CT scan.
Interestingly, different forms of quarrelling caused negative effects in each gender. Women who either acted hostile towards their mate or were faced with hostility from him showed more atherosclerosis in the subsequent scan. The husbands, on the other hand, had more hardened plaques on their arteries when there were controlling statements made—either by the men, themselves, or their wives.
These differences, according to Smith, show the inherent gender gap in spousal roles. "Conventional views of harmony versus discord—warm versus hostile interactions—are indeed important for women." he says. "But a different dimension of quality is more important for men, and that has to do with power and control in relationships."
Marital difficulties can be a source of chronic stress, says Smith, who emphasizes that all sources of stress need to be considered when trying to lower the risk of heart disease. Backed up by previous research, which shows the benefit of close relationships for heart health, Smith reminds all couples that no matter how they argue, "a low-quality relationship is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease."
The best advice, learn to communicate with respect, kindness, trust and joy. Remember tp play together and let the challenges of travel and vacation be opportunities to find the sense of humer in sressful situations.
Relax, and remember why you came together in the first place, and celebrate your accomplishments. Put your feet in the sand, and let resentment wash away with every wave. Get a massage or some serious excercise to put yourself in a positive frame of mind.
A vacation is also a good time to rekindle romance or even renew your wedding vows! Look for a variety of relationship counseling, couples massage, and ministers on Hawaii Health Guide to get back on the path to a healthy heart, and a happy relationship.