Marital spats can be a literal pain, according to new research from Northwestern University. In a study that spanned two decades, researchers had married couples come into a lab every five years to rehash their common disagreements in front of a camera.
Experts studied their conversations, taking note of their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Then they surveyed the couples about their health.
Over the 20-year period, men who argued in certain ways were more likely to wind up with health problems. A full 80 per cent of the men who tended to get angry during disputes had developed cardiovascular symptoms like chest pain, heart racing, and shortness of breath by the end of the 20 years. But only 53 per cent of the guys who stayed calm experienced those same problems.
Why? When you’re feeling heated, your blood pressure rises and your heart rate speeds up, the researchers say. Over time, that causes wear and tear on your heart, raising your risk for cardiovascular problems, says study author Claudia Haase.
But anger isn’t the only thing that can put your health at risk. Men who shut down emotionally during arguments—avoiding eye contact, ignoring their partners—developed more musculoskeletal symptoms like muscle tension and back pain.
Nearly half of the guys with these tendencies developed muscle problems, while only 23 per cent of emotionally open men did. Researchers blame the way your body stiffens up when you stonewall your partner: Your muscles, particularly in your neck and shoulders, become tense, which can raise your risk for pain over time, says Haase.
To change your fighting habits before they wreak havoc on your body, Haase says to take a walk anytime you feel yourself getting heated. Physically leaving the argument will interrupt your usual shouting or shutting-down reaction, and the walk will give you time to calm down.
When you return to the conversation with a level head, you’ll be able to talk it through constructively—at an appropriate volume, without tense shoulders.