COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Even after husbands and wives have stopped arguing, the battle may still be raging within the woman's body. It can do so for hours, altering her hormone levels and weakening her immune system to the point where illness could gain a foothold.
This discovery, based on a long-running study of newlywed couples, is forcing researchers to rethink their understanding of marital conflicts. It could also have important implications for the physical, as well as emotional, health of married couples.
Researchers from Ohio State University's Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research reached the new conclusions after evaluating data from a study of 90 newlywed couples that ran from 1988 through 1992. Their work was reported in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
During that project, they asked each couple to spend up to 24 hours at the University's Clinical Research Center. Husband and wife both had an IV inserted so that blood samples could betaken at hourly intervals throughout their stay.
After a short interview, the couple was asked to discuss a topic known to be a source of disagreement. Invariably, an argument ensued. The couple would remain together for the rest of the 24-hour stay, during which time, blood samples were drawn for analysis of hormone levels and immune system markers.
The researchers wanted to know what long-term changes, if any, the argument would cause in the couple's hormone levels. The were also looking for any correlation between the way the couples fought and the differences between husbands and wives.
They looked specifically at epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, as well as ACTH, growth hormone and prolactin. The half-lives of all these hormones are very short and any averaged increase over the duration of the experiment would signify more than a simple spike caused by the morning argument.
How the husbands and wives reacted to each other during the argument was key to the experiment. Earlier research suggested that men generally seek to "tune out" their wives during an argument, seeking to escape or withdraw from the conflict. Wives, on the other hand, are seen as being more likely to complain, criticize or demand change in a relationship. The husband's withdrawal is acutely frustrating to these women.
Blood analysis showed that among women who reacted negatively to their husbands' withdrawal during the arguments, the average levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol and prolactin all rose. The more negative the wife's response and her husband's withdrawal, the greater the hormone level rise.
"We found strong and reliable links in these women which related to what happened during the argument," explained Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology. "We're probably seeing the results of the women thinking about and reliving the argument throughout the day."
"If those hormone levels stay up long enough, it can have immune consequences," explained Ronald Glaser, professor of medical microbiology and immunology. Earlier work by Institute researchers has shown that psychological stress can cause weakened immune responses and a slowing of wound healing.
Exactly what health implications these results offer is the key question.
"Our vision of how a person's health changes depends on cumulative effects," explains William Malarkey, professor of internal medicine and medical microbiology and immunology and designer of the study. "You don't get healthy or sick in one day. It's a result of a series of impacts and those impacts accumulate over time."
The fact that the researchers focused on newlyweds -- people who characteristically argue less -- was important.
"We studied healthy people to see if there were changes even with them. If we extrapolate the situation to people who are less healthy, the impact should be far greater."
The researchers suggest that one key to lowering the stress during a couple's arguments is to concentrate on the issues at hand and reduce the amount of negative responses that result.
"We're not saying that conflicts in marriage are bad necessarily. They're completely normal," Kiecolt-Glaser said. "It's the way the couples disagreed that was later related to a rise in hormone levels and a drop in immune function.
"It's the quality of the disagreement."
Glaser explains that the style of the fighting is most important. "The sarcasm, name-calling and back-biting are the problems."
The researchers said their study may really under-estimate the effects of marital conflicts. Arguments occurring in a research lab are probably less active than those behind closed doors, Glaser said.