God, yelling is fun sometimes, isn’t it? It can often feel VERY GOOD TO GET YOUR POINT ACROSS LOUDLY! On the other end of the conflict-management spectrum, the silent treatment is also satisfying in its way. Sorry, can’t hear you, much too busy freezing you out.
Both tactics can be gratifying in the moment. After 20 years, though, you may regret your argumentative strategy. In an intriguing new paper, published online this week in the journal Emotion, psychologists report the results of a two-decade-long study, which links a tendency to express anger or to give the silent treatment to some physical health consequences. After 20 years, those who were easily angered were more likely to show symptoms of cardiovascular problems; those who froze their partners out were more likely to show signs of musculoskeletal problems — that is, backaches or headaches.
On the one hand, the study is impressive in its scope. Researchers, led by Claudia M. Haase at Northwestern University, followed the same 156 San Francisco–area couples beginning in 1989. Four times over the following 20 years, the couples came into the lab, where they were made to sit in a room with each other and have three 15-minute discussions. They talked about what had happened that day — neutral-enough territory. They also chatted about some pleasant hobby or activity they enjoyed doing together. And then things got tense, as the couples also talked over some issue that was a source of ongoing conflict in their relationship, things like sex, money, or parenting.
While they talked, a hidden camera recorded them, which was later watched by experimenters who rated their behaviors. Specifically, they looked for signs of anger, such as a raised voice, furrowed brows, pressed lips, or a tight jaw. They also watched for signs of what the researchers called “stonewalling,” or what you or I might call freezing someone out: little or no eye contact, an expressionless face, and no “verbal backchannels” — little words that signal agreement and acknowledgement to a conversational partner, like “yeah” or “I know.”
At those five-year check-ins, the couples also filled out questionnaires about their physical health. In their analysis of the data, Haase and her colleagues found that 80 percent of men who had shown signs of high anger behavior also reported at least one cardiovascular problem, such as chest pains; they also found that about 40 percent of men who showed high stonewalling behavior reported at least one musculoskeletal problem, like back pain. There was an association found for women, too, but not as strong as was found for men. (All these symptoms, by the way, were things the individuals developed over time; they weren’t around when the study began in the late 1980s.)
And now we come to the other hand. The data on the study volunteers’ symptoms came from self-reports, which are often less accurate than an objective health measurement; also, though 20 years is an impressively long time to keep track of these couples, four meetings with the research team is not that many meetings. And there is also the correlation-is-not-causation factor to consider – it’s not clear whether these argument styles caused the health conditions, or if it perhaps works the other way around, and the people who would’ve developed these symptoms anyway just happen to be more likely to express anger or stonewall. As usual, more research is needed before anything definite can be said, but for now, it’s an eerie, Ghost of Marriage Future–type peek into what years of questionable communication skills might be doing to your physical health.