Ernest Harburg and colleagues followed 192 couples over 17 years and placed the couples into one of four categories: the first contained both partners communicate their anger; the second and third groups contained one spouse who expressed, while the other suppressed, anger; and a fourth group in which both the husband and wife would suppress their anger and brood. Results found that when both spouses suppress their anger at the other when unfairly attacked, earlier death was twice as likely than in all other types.
"When couples get together, one of their main jobs is reconciliation about conflict," Harburg said in press release. "Usually nobody is trained to do this. If they have good parents, they can imitate, that's fine, but usually the couple is ignorant about the process of resolving conflict. The key matter is, when the conflict happens, how do you resolve it?
"When you don't, 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."
The study, which adjusted for age, smoking, weight, blood pressure, bronchial problems, breathing, and cardiovascular risk, looked only at attacks that were considered undeserved or unfair by the person being attacked, as the 'victims' tended not to get angry if the attack was considered fair.
This fits well with research done by John Gottman and others who contend that it's not the level of conflict that puts relationships at risk for a split--it's how that conflict is handled. It's important to 'fight fair' and not resort to character attacks, stonewalling and other conflict-resolution 'no-no's, but it is important to sort through the conflict rather than holding it in. Now we know just how important!
To reduce the stress in your relationship by effectively handling conflicts and anger, check out the following resources:
Harburg, E.; Kaciroti, N.; Gleiberman, L.; Schork, M. A.; Julius, M. Marital Pair Anger Coping Types May Act as an Entity to Affect Mortality: Preliminary Findings from a Prospective Study. Journal of Family Communication, January 2008.
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