What Your Arguing Style Says About Your Future Health, According To Science
There's nothing more infuriating than getting into an altercation with someone who has a different arguing style than you. If you're the type to vent your frustration through outbursts, being stonewalled in an argument may make you angrier — and vice versa. Although differences in communication style aren't necessarily that pronounced, people deal with conflict in different ways, and it doesn't just affect your relationships. According researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Northwestern University, the way you handle arguments may affect your health over time.
In a recent paper published in the journal Emotion , researchers analyzed 20 years of data from a long-term study following 156 heterosexual couples in the San Francisco Bay area. Every five years since 1989, the couples completed a variety of questionnaires and discussed their lives in a laboratory setting on camera; these recordings were later analyzed by behavioral coders to determine emotional states, body language, and so on. For this particular study, researchers focused on how negative emotions like anger and sadness related to health outcomes over time. Although sadness and fear didn't affect participants in the long term, researchers found that two opposing behaviors correlated with health problems later in life: Stonewalling, aka shutting down emotionally, and outbursts of anger.
In the laboratory recordings, couples discussed areas of marital conflict for 15 minutes, and researchers later analyzed their body language for displays of certain emotions. According to Science Daily, signs of anger included pressing their lips together, clenched jaws, and a raised or lowered voice. In contrast, researchers identified stonewalling by behaviors like avoiding eye contact, blank faces, and stiff neck muscles.
Here's where it gets interesting: Not only were these negative emotions associated with negative health outcomes, but the different behaviors appeared to affect people in different ways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, shutting down emotionally was linked to muscle tension and stiffness, particularly in the back and neck. In contrast, patterns of angry outbursts were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular problems like chest pain and high blood pressure.
The results may seem intuitive; in the past, anger has been linked to short-term effects like elevated heart rate and high blood pressure. Prior to this study, however, there hasn't been much research on the long-term consequences of how we deal with conflict, especially as it relates to physical health.
"For years, we've known that negative emotions are associated with negative health outcomes, but this study dug deeper to find that specific emotions are linked to specific health problems," said senior author Robert Levenson, according to Science Daily.
Unfortunately, conflict is unavoidable even in happy marriages, but that doesn't mean you're doomed to heart disease or back pain for the rest of your life. There's all kinds of research detailing how to deal with conflict in a healthy way, and the answer seems to be in the middle ground between emotional outbursts and bottling up your feelings. Although research indicates that destructive styles of arguing, like yelling and throwing things, may be a predictor of divorce, most psychologists agree that ignoring problems just exacerbates matters.
"Engaging in conflict isn’t going to end the relationship, it’s avoiding the conflict [that might]," Michael Batshaw, LCSW, told Psych Central. Basically, it's important to acknowledge issues while also remaining (relatively) calm.
It's worth noting that the UC Berkeley study specifically focused on heterosexual couples, but that doesn't mean the findings don't apply to single people, conflicts outside of marriage, LGBTQ couples, or the myriad kinds of relationships out there. Suppressing negative emotions isn't healthy, but neither is giving in to them completely. Of course, what works for some people may not work for others, but it's something to keep in mind next time you're in an argument. In all likelihood, your body (and your partner) will thank you for it later on.
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