Acquire the license to the best health content in the world
Contact Us

Marital Squabbles Can Harm Your Health

Conflict-related stress damages wound-healing ability, study finds

MONDAY, Dec. 5, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- A word of caution for couples who routinely communicate through a sharp word and a slammed door: A bad marriage is bad for your health.

A new study suggests that spouses engaged in hostile relationships have consistently elevated stress levels that significantly impede their bodies' wound-healing capacity.

Blissful honeymooners are not, however, completely immune to the stress effect. Otherwise happy partners will find their healing abilities similarly diminished -- although to a lesser degree -- following spikes in stress that accompany occasional spats.

Proof of this apparent mind-body connection, researchers say, could have a major impact on the emphasis caregivers place on improving a patient's frame of mind prior to surgery, in order to optimize the recovery process.

"Certainly the study shows that wound-healing is far more sensitive to even minor stresses than we ever assumed, so for people facing surgery being relaxed is really important," said study lead author Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research (IBMR) at Ohio State University.

The study results appear in the December issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

Avoiding the relationship pitfalls highlighted in her own research, Kiecolt-Glaser happily teamed with her own spouse Ronald Glaser -- also from the IBMR at Ohio State -- to direct a study focusing on 42 married couples.

The primarily white, well-educated spouses ranged in age from 22 to 77 and had been married an average of almost 13 years.

On two occasions -- separated by two months -- each couple was admitted to a hospital for a 24-hour testing period.

During the first session, the couples were asked to engage in two 10-minute supportive discussions regarding something each spouse wanted to change about himself or herself.

During the second session, the couples discussed marital topics -- such as money or in-laws -- specially selected to provoke an argument.

Both sessions were videotaped and analyzed for evidence of hostility. Questionnaires were also completed before and after, to gauge both hostility levels and general marital satisfaction.

To monitor the discussion's impact on healing, the researchers created eight tiny blisters on the arms of each spouse prior to the conversations. After removing the wounded skin, the blisters were covered to measure the rise and fall of reparative fluids -- such as pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are critical to the healing process. Blood samples were also drawn.

The researchers found that blisters healed more slowly following argumentative conversations than after supportive discussions.

In addition, generally hostile couples also experienced a slower healing process -- following both non-supportive and supportive talks -- than friendlier couples.

Highly hostile couples experienced healing rates that were only 60 percent of those experienced by less-hostile spouses, the study found.

Kiecolt-Glaser and her team also noted that the amount of pro-inflammatory cytokines found in the blood beyond the wound site rose to higher levels following conflict discussions than following supportive interactions.

A spike in cytokine levels outside the healing area does not aid the recovery process, but instead has been previously characterized as a secondary health threat linked to a higher risk for developing depression, as well as heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and general physical decline, the researchers said.

The researchers concluded that both short-term and long-term stress related to hostile interactions between spouses contributes to a considerable slowing of the healing process, as well as a simultaneous rise in the risk for developing serious physical and mental illness.

They further noted that because at-home spousal battles are most probably longer and nastier than the study session conversations, the findings are likely to underestimate the full negative impact of hostility.

"This study shows that the quality of important relationships has clear physical consequences, especially in marriage but in other close relationships in general," said Kiecolt-Glaser. "If they're chronically contentious or difficult there's a clear toll on the body."

She emphasized, however, that disagreements are an integral part of relationships and should not be viewed with undue concern.

"You always need to do emotional housekeeping in any relationship and take care of differences of opinion that will always be there," she said. "But the quality of the relationship is the issue. We didn't look at people who were 'just having a bad day,' and so we saw that there is a clear physiological cost to chronic bickering that could have negative long-term consequences."

Matthew Silvan, an assistant clinical professor of medical psychology at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City, was enthusiastic about the study's findings.

"It's very nice to see very sound confirmation of the ways in which the mind affects the body," he said. "Intuitively, when you're anxious, you get a little bit of an upset stomach; when you see a sexy picture you get aroused; and when you're embarrassed you blush. So the fact that the two are connected is obvious. But in some ways this is still an idea that society is still reluctant to accept."

"So this study is important because it suggests that if you pay attention to people's emotional stress you're going to have a better chance at healing their physical problems," Silvan said.

More information

For more on the impact of stress on health, visit the National Mental Health Association.

SOURCES: Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, professor of psychiatry and psychology, Ohio State University, Columbus; Matthew Silvan, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor of medical psychology, Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City; December 2005, Archives of General Psychiatry
Consumer News