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Updated 4:00 PM January 25, 2008
 

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  Research
Couples expressing anger may keep marriages healthy

A good fight with your spouse may be good for your health, research suggests.

Couples in which both the husband and wife suppress their anger when one attacks the other die earlier than members of couples where one or both partners express their anger and resolve the conflict, preliminary results of a U-M study indicate.

Researchers looked at 192 couples over 17 years, and placed them into one of four categories: in the first group both partners communicate their anger; in the second and third groups one spouse expresses while the other suppresses; and in the fourth group both the husband and wife suppress their anger and brood, says Ernest Harburg, professor emeritus with the School of Public Health (SPH) and the psychology department, and lead author. The study is a longitudinal analysis of couples in Tecumseh, Mich.

"Comparison between couples in which both people suppress their anger, and the three other types of couples, are very intriguing," Harburg says. When both spouses suppress their anger at the other when unfairly attacked, earlier death was twice as likely (26 pairs, 13 deaths) than in all other types (166 pairs, 41 deaths).

In 14 percent of couples, both partners suppressed their anger. In 27 percent of those couples, one member of the couple died during the study period and in 23 percent of those couples both the husband and the wife died during the study period. That's compared to only 6 percent of couples where both spouses died in the remaining three groups combined. Only 19 percent in the remaining three groups combined saw one partner die during the study period.

"When couples get together one of their main jobs is reconciliation about conflict," Harburg says. "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?"

The study adjusted for age, smoking, weight, blood pressure, bronchial problems, breathing and cardiovascular risk.

Harburg stresses that these preliminary numbers are small, but the researchers are now collecting 30-year follow-up data, which will have almost double the death rate, he says.

Co-authors are Niko Kaciroti, Center for Human Growth and Development; Lillian Gleiberman, Department of Internal Medicine; M. Anthony Schork and Mara Julius, both SPH emeritus.

The paper, "Marital Pair Anger Coping Types May Act as an Entity to Affect Mortality: Preliminary Findings from a Prospective Study (Tecumseh, Michigan, 1971-88)," appears in January in the Journal of Family Communication.

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