Cynical Communication in Marriage Results in Literal, Figurative Wounds

A study suggests that cynical and negative communication in marriage affects spouses' not only mental but also physical health by causing inflammation.

A new look at the research published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology in 2005 proposes that avoidance in marriage could lead to not only emotional and mental complications but also chronic inflammation and lowered immune function.

Researchers at Ohio State University revealed that stress couples feel during arguments could slow their bodies' ability to health from wounds by at least one day.

Effect on immune system

New analysis of the study once again showed that negative and cynical communication between married couples affect their immune systems. Couples who were under stress with negative conversations had inflated blood markers for inflammation.

“Marriage is associated with better health, but chronically distressed marriages can worsen health,” said first author Rosie Shrout. “It’s important to understand what is going on behind the scenes that contributes to these effects.”

The first trial demonstrated that a single stressful argument, recorded and studied by researchers in a laboratory, could impair immune function.

The new research proposes that the couples' more combative arguments in the lab were connected with more negative marital communication. These daily patterns are probably to blame for continuous negative feelings and biological markers that can eventually bring negative impact on health.

“What we’re seeing is that both chronic daily negativity and acute negativity, and their combination – experiencing both of those – is particularly bad for couples’ emotions, relationships and immune functioning,” continued Shrout, an assistant professor of human development and family science at Purdue University.

Women are more affected

Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, senior author of the new study and professor emerita of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State University, also co-led the research in 2005. In her decades as a leader of Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research (IBMR) she demonstrated the numerous ways in which stressful life events are harmful to our physical health.

42 married heterosexual couples with an average of 12 years of marriage were the subject of the work in 2005. The researchers used a tool to cause small blisters on each partner's forearm and tested their baseline levels of a pro-inflammatory protein. The wounds' cure improvement was tracked to see how the participant's immune system was working.

When problems arose, participants filled out questionnaires to determine their typical communication patterns. These patterns included mutually constructive or consistent positive communication, as well as revisions of negative communication patterns that included mutual evasion or times in which one person made orders and the other drew out from the discussion as a response.

Married couples had two different conversations during two different visits. The first centered around social support while the ladder involved bringing up a conflict in the marriage, including finances or in-law complications. Researchers studied the positive and negative behaviors during the conversations.

“If they were more negative typically on a day-to-day basis, and were negative in those specific interactions, they rated the discussion more negatively and less positively, they felt fewer positive emotions, and their wounds healed more slowly,” said Shrout.

“That chronic negativity and acute negativity had emotional, relational and immune effects – most notably for women,” she continued.

The new study says married couple’s negative conversation patterns, especially mutual avoidance and demand/withdrawal, had a huge impact on their feelings after lab visits and also on their inflammation and immune system measurements.

On the other hand, lab conversations were rated more favorably by couples who announced having more mutually beneficial communication patterns.

“This study provides a window into relationships: What couples say about their relationship really did translate not only into how they behaved, but also what they said about the behavior, and their biology,” she said.

“They walked into this study situation, and the way they’re responding may in part be because that’s what they’re expecting. They have such well-worn tracks in terms of interactions that it’s hard to derail the train,” concluded Shrout.

The subtle effects of negative communication patterns was demonstrated by a few specific findings: Couples who avoided difficult subjects and exhibited less positive behaviors during lab visits healed wounds more slowly. When mutual avoiders tried to resolve conflicts more positively, it did not speed up the healing process for their wounds.

Shrout said couples can go to therapy or school to improve their communication skills if needed.


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