Even couples who have been happily married for decades can suffer
negative health effects from the stress of marital arguments,
a new study suggests.
Researchers at Ohio State University found that abrasive arguments
between husbands and wives--married an average of 42 years--were
linked to a weakening of certain aspects of their immune responses.
In addition, hostile arguments were associated with an increase
in levels of stress hormones.
These changes could possibly make people more susceptible to illness,
particularly infectious diseases and perhaps cancer, according
to the researchers.
The results of this research are similar to those found in a study
of newlywed couples, said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of
psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State who was involved in both
studies. But, in some ways, she believes the results in these
older couples were more surprising.
"'You might expect that arguments would have less impact
on older couples because they've gone through these disagreements
many times before and have learned to deal with them. But that's
not the case," said Kiecolt-Glaser.
The results were also significant because the older couples were
relatively happy--only 13% met criteria for marital distress--and
because they generally showed more positive behavior and less
negative behavior toward each other than did the newlywed couples.
"Despite the advantages these older couples had compared
to the newlyweds, they still showed negative effects related to
the amount of hostility in their disagreements," she said.
Kiecolt-Glaser conducted the research with Ronald Glaser, professor
of medical microbiology and immunology, and William Malarkey,
professor of internal medicine. All three are members of Ohio
State's new Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.
The researchers presented their findings March 14th in Washington,
DC, at the International Congress of Behavioral Medicine, hosted
by the Society of Behavioral Medicine.
Experiment Probes Impact of "Problem" Issues
The research involved 31 couples age 55 to 75. They completed
questionnaires that examined their level of marital satisfaction.
They then participated in an 8-hour testing session at Ohio State's
Clinical Research Center. Each person had an intravenous tube
inserted, which allowed researchers to take blood samples at regular
intervals during the experiment.
After a brief adjustment period, each couple would begin a discussion
about topics both had identified as causing problems in their
marriage. They were given a half-hour to try to resolve the issues.
During that time, researchers took blood samples, which were later
tested for indicators of immune function and changes in hormone
Researchers also videotaped the discussions and later rated the
amount of negative behaviors shown by the couples toward each
"We found that the more negative behaviors the couples showed
toward each other, the more their immune measures were weakened,"
Glaser said. Couples with weaker immune measures also described
their usual marital disagreements as more negative.
The blood levels of several hormones--such as cortisol, adrenocorticotrophic
hormone (ACTH), and norepinephrine--were also measured during
the couples' arguments. "We tested these hormones, which
are released during stress, because they can affect the immune
response," Malarkey said.
The results showed that these hormonal levels varied in women
depending on the amount of negative behavior during the arguments
and their overall marital satisfaction, Malarkey said. However,
there was no changes in men's hormone levels.
"We believe that women show more response in hormone levels
because they are more attuned to negative behaviors in their relationships
and are more sensitive to them, Kiecolt-Glaser said.
While changes in immune response were seen in both newlywed and
older couples, the effects may have greater consequences in older
people, according to the researchers.
Older adults already have a less vigorous immune response than
do younger people, Glaser said. And other studies by the Ohio
State researchers show that chronic stress has more debilitating
effects on older people.
"Older adults have greater rates of illness and death due
to infectious diseases compared to younger people," Glaser
notes. "Additional stress, such as from marital arguments,
may put them at greater risk."
Other members of the research team were John Cacioppo and Robert
MacCallum, professors; and Mary Snydersmith, graduate student,
all in psychology at Ohio State. The project was supported by
the NIH and Ohio State's Comprehensive Cancer Center.