Campus researchers discover link between marital conflict, health

Zainab Ali/Staff

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Avoiding anger and stonewalling during marital conflicts can prolong one’s lifespan in addition to one’s relationship, according to a study published Monday by researchers from UC Berkeley and other institutions.

The study – which followed 156 heterosexual, middle-aged and older couples in the Bay Area over a period of 20 years – linked expressions of anger during these conflicts to cardiovascular problems and linked shutting down emotionally to musculoskeletal ailments. Campus psychology professor Robert Levenson led the research team, which also included faculty from Stanford University, Northwestern University and San Francisco State University.

While the study found a correlation between emotional behavior and health outcomes in both men and women, the link was especially prominent among the husbands the researchers studied. The study’s lead author, Claudia Haase of Northwestern University, said this finding seems to support the idea that men are more vulnerable to the effects of negative emotions, though more research is necessary to determine if this discovery is true.

“These findings have important implications for helping couples learn patterns of interacting when it comes to discussing conflicts,” said campus psychology professor Ann Kring, who did not participate in the study, in an email. “Of course, it is unreasonable to think that couples won’t express anger — but ‘keeping a lid on it’ when possible may well have protective benefits over the years.”

According to Kring, the “power” of the study comes from its 20-year time frame. Starting in 1989, the researchers videotaped the participating married couples discussing areas of conflict every five years.

The team then flagged the tapes for specific emotional responses and collected data on the subjects’ health conditions through questionnaires and assessments.

“It’s great because these links are not present at the start of the study,” Haase said. “You really need studies that span a large period of time to catch these symptoms because they take time to develop.”

According to campus assistant professor of psychology Aaron Fisher, it is rare for a study to follow a sample for such a long period of time in this kind of research.

Fisher also lauded the study for its use of trained professionals who coded the tapes of the couples’ conversations for signs of anger, stonewalling, fear and sadness. He added that this is a more accurate method of determining a subject’s emotions than asking the subject to self-report.

The project was funded by both the National Institute on Aging and the German Research Foundation, the latter of which began funding the project when Haase joined the team in 2009.

“(This research) should serve as an alarm to consider doing something to deal with relationship problems and create a better emotional balance,” Levenson said in an email.

Contact Sally Littlefield at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @slittlefield3.