So, last month my husband and I had one of those rare monster fights. The kind where I say really intelligent things like “oh ok, so I’ll just never state my opinion again!” with smoke coming out of my ears. And he was all “You’re a crazy person!” and points to the giant snarl on the side of my head as evidence. I remember I was still amped up, even after the fight was over. My stomach was all twisty, my heart was still pumping hard, and it felt like every muscle was still clenched, even though we’d made up (and I’d brushed my hair)! It turns out that these fights—even the small snarl-free ones—can take their toll on us, and how couples behave during disagreements matters, even on the cellular level.
There is some really powerful evidence that spousal conflict actually impairs your immune system—it hurts your ability to fend off illness or heal if you’re injured. In one study, couples agreed to spend a night in a hospital lab twice, about a month apart. Each time, their blood was sampled hourly looking for evidence of stress hormones as well as evidence of immune functioning. Sounds like a pretty fabulous date night, right? The first time the couples came in they had a conversation that was supportive and about something they wanted to work on together. The second time the couple came in they were asked to discuss the biggest problem or problems in their relationship. During these visits they were also given a series of small standardized wounds, or suction blisters, so the researchers could watch how it healed.
The interesting thing was that the wounds they received when they had a conflict discussion took an average of a full day longer to heal than the ones they received when they’d had the support conversation! Plus, the wounds of couples who had lower levels of hostile behaviors in their interactions (no matter which discussion) healed 40% faster than those that did have hostility. (To be clear, these were fairly happy couples; even just a little hostility, such as being critical or rolling one’s eyes, went a long way).
To me, this is crazy awesome cool science. How we behave with our spouses can be bad for our cells all virus-style, making us more likely to get sick! We always talk about loving one another “in sickness and in health”, but what if your relationship can make you sick? I mean, how this hasn’t become a page-turning Michael Crichton style novel I’ll never understand, but that is I guess what makes me a psychology nerd.
The good news is that my husband and I DID make up, and we don’t fight often (I swear! Even though you may think otherwise since the last post I wrote here was also about a fight). When you think about how our fights might make it more likely that we’ll catch that nasty bug going around the office, it makes the work that goes into having a good relationship and not fighting seem all the more worth it.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., Loving, T. J., Stowell, J. R., Malarkey, W. B., Lemeshow, S., Dickinson, S., & Glaser, R. (2005). Hostile marital interactions, proinflammatory cytokine production, and wound healing. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62, 1377-1384.
Extra-super bonus feature…See our very own Dr. Tim Loving get wounded!