Long live mad married people

A new study finds that spouses who fight with each other live longer. Really?


Carol Lloyd
January 25, 2008 9:15PM (UTC)

It shouldn't surprise us that a Live Science story claiming that spouses who fight live longer reached Yahoo News' most popular list recently. We all love science that flatters us into believing the all-out marital brawl we had last week actually improved our longevity.

But my first response is: I'll believe it over my dead, seething body.

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First, the study. Ernest Harburg, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and Psychology Department, interviewed 192 couples over a 17-year period. He placed each couple into one of four categories: both partners blow off steam, only the wife expresses anger, only the husband gets mad, and both suppress their anger. The study found that 25 percent of the couples categorized as "suppressors" died during the research period, as compared with 12 percent of the rest of the couples. The results remained the same even after controlling for age, smoking, weight, blood pressure, bronchial problems, breathing and cardiovascular risk.

I don't advocate bitter silent treatments over bitter arguments. As the Live Science story noted, past studies have shown than anger can have unexpected benefits, like better decision making and a stronger sense of optimism.

But in a long-term relationship, there's anger and then there's ANGER. Explosive and chronic anger is associated with high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease. How many crimes of violence are made in the heat of anger? Full-blown anger not only severs the connection to our empathetic side but can lead to deeply self-destructive behavior. As anyone who has lost a relationship after an especially nasty argument knows, "venting" can damage even the strongest bonds. I wonder if the researchers omitted couples who had a history of physical or verbal abuse -- two nasty products of unchecked anger.

As it turns out, the study, which will be published in the January issue of Journal of Family Communication isn't so much about couples who "fight" living longer as it is about confronting conflict. "The key matter is, when the conflict happens, how do you resolve it?" Harburg told Live Science. "If you bury your anger, and you brood on it and you resent the other person or the attacker, and you don't try to resolve the problem, then you're in trouble." What he's talking about sounds less like aggression and more like practicing healthy conflict management.

But of course, that's not a phrase that inspires snappy headlines.


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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