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Marriage Lesson From Science: Pick Your Battles

August 2, 2011

So, a few weeks ago (maybe even months ago at this point? Is that possible? This summer is disappearing!), Ethan and I had a rare monster fights. The kind where I say something really intelligent thing like “oh ok, so I’ll just never state my opinion again!” with smoke coming out of my ears, and Ethan responds with “You’re a crazy person!” pointing to the giant snarl on the side of my head as evidence. I remember I was so amped up even after the fight was over. My stomach was all twisty, my heart was still racing, and it felt like every muscle was still clenched, even though we’d made up (and I’d brushed my hair)!

Sadly, I think occasional fights like this are just a part of marriage, unless you’re one of those super passive aggressive couples who (in the words of the fabulous Rita Rudner), just serve their spouse bread with a frozen stick of butter and watch them struggle. Big decisions are getting made with another person, and your lives are so intertwined, you’re bound to disagree. And even those butter-struggle people are likely to feel the physical effects of disagreements with their partners.

So, you’re probably thinking, “wow, Maryhope, thank god I read this. I never would have known that fights make me feel crappy” and “this is such a cheery topic.” Here’s the thing it turns out that how often couples fight and how they behave in those fights matters! And it doesn’t just matter to you or your friends that have to listen to you, it matters to your cells!

There is some really powerful evidence that spousal conflict actually impairs your immune system–it hurts your ability to fend off illness or heal if you’re injured. In one cool study, couples agreed to spend a night in a hospital lab twice, about a month apart. Each time, their blood was sampled hourly looking for evidence of stress hormones as well as evidence of immune functioning. Sounds like a pretty fabulous date night, right? The first time the couples came in they had a conversation that was supportive and about something they wanted to work on together. The second time the couple came in, they were asked to discuss the biggest problem in their relationship. During these visits they were also given a small standardized wound. The interesting thing was that the wound they received when they had a conflict discussion took an average of a full day longer to heal than the one they received when they’d had the support conversation! Plus! If the couples had lower levels of hostile behaviors in their interactions (no matter which one), their wounds healed at 40% faster than those that did have hostility.

To me, this is crazy awesome cool science. How we behave with our spouses can attack our cells all virus-style.  I mean, how this hasn’t become a page-turning Michael Crichton style novel I’ll never understand, but that is I guess what makes me a nerd.

The good news was that Ethan and I DID make up, and we don’t fight too often.When you think about how our fights can make it more likely that we’ll catch that nasty bug going around the office, it makes the work that goes into having a good relationship and not fighting seem all the more worth it.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Loving, T. J., Stowell, J. R., Malarkey, W. B., Lemeshow, S., Dickinson, S., & Glaser, R. (2005). Hostile marital interactions, proinflammatory cytokine production, and wound healing. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 1377-1384.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Marci permalink
    August 2, 2011 11:32 am

    Of course, me being me, knowledge of this has made me stop fighting with my husband about whatever we were fighting about to fight about how we are fighting. An example of how being an expert can make things worse. 🙂

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  1. Science of Relationships Strikes Again « Science Gnome

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