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Spousal Spats: Bad for the Heart?

Conflicts Happen, but Avoid Hostility and Controlling Behavior, Study Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 3, 2006 -- When husbands and wives argue in a hostile, controlling way, their hearts may not like it.

So say researchers at the University of Utah. They studied 150 healthy, married couples, most of whom were in their early 60s.

The study covered two key questions:

  • How did the couples fight?
  • Which husbands and wives had more coronary artery calcification?

Coronary artery calcification is a marker of plaque in the coronary arteries, which supply heart muscle with blood. Too much plaque in those arteries can raise the risk of a heart attack.

The bottom line: Hostility and controlling behavior weren't good for couples' hearts. But men and women fared a bit differently.

The findings are being presented in Denver at the American Psychosomatic Society's annual meeting.

Fighting Fair?

Each couple was told to discuss a topic that was touchy in their relationship while being videotaped.

The couples knew they were being taped. Their fights were probably "a muted version of what goes on at home," says researcher and psychology professor Tim Smith, PhD, in a news release.

Even so, the researchers got an idea of how the couples handled conflict. Smith's team reviewed the tapes, categorizing comments for warmth vs. hostility and dominance vs. submission.

"A warm, submissive comment would be, 'Oh, that's a good idea, let's do it,'" Smith says. "A less warm one would be, 'If it's important to you, I'll do what you want.' An unfriendly, submissive comment is, 'I'll do what you want if you get off my back.'"

"I don't want you to do that; I want you to do this," is an example of a dominant or controlling comment, states the news release.

Checking for Heart Problems

Two days later, the couples got computed tomography (CT) chest scans to check for coronary artery calcification.

In women, coronary artery calcification was greater if they or their husbands had argued in a hostile manner during the videotaped session, the study shows.

Men's results weren't tied to hostility. However, they showed greater coronary artery calcification if they or their wives had argued in a controlling, domineering way.

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