Spousal Spats May Have Health Benefits

Married Couples That Express Anger Outlive Those That Suppress Anger, Study Shows

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 25, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 25, 2008 -- New research on marriage and health shows that married couples who express anger may outlive those who suppress anger.

The key is for both spouses to be comfortable expressing anger, rather than one or both suppressing anger, University of Michigan researchers report.

"The key matter is, when the conflict happens, how do you resolve it?" asks Ernest Harburg, PhD, professor emeritus with the University of Michigan's School of Public Health and psychology department. "If you bury your anger, and you brood on it ... and you don't try to resolve the problem, then you're in trouble."

Harburg's team found a higher death rate among married couples in which both spouses suppress anger, compared with other married couples. Their findings appear in the Journal of Family Communication.

(Has a good fight been worth it now and then in your marriage? Tell us how you feel on WebMD's Couples Coping: Support Group message board.)

Expressing Anger

Harburg and colleagues studied 192 married couples in Michigan for 17 years, starting in 1971.

When the study started, the husbands and wives were 35-69 years old. They were asked to imagine being yelled at by their spouse or a policeman about something that wasn't their fault.

Each spouse answered questions about how he or she would handle that situation. They were considered to suppress their anger if they would do at least two of these things:

  • Not show their anger
  • Not protest the verbal attack
  • Feel guilty later on if they showed their anger

In 14% of the couples, both spouses suppressed their anger. Their death rate was almost twice as high during the study, compared to other couples.

The findings held when age, smoking, weight, heart risks, and other factors were considered.

Still, the study has some limits. For instance, it's not clear if the findings would be similar in younger couples or in a more diverse study. And the researchers couldn't control for every possible influence; perhaps couples that express anger had other healthy traits.

Show Sources

Harburg, E. Journal of Family Communication, January 2008.
News release, University of Michigan.

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