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Conflict Has the Power to Affect our Physical Health

February 02, 2022

Sky-high cholesterol and off-the-charts blood pressure aren't the only ways we put our health at risk. Research reported in the December, 2005 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry revealed that conflict within our primary relationship has the power to affect our physical health. In particular, certain levels of marital conflict were associated with the body's ability to heal itself.

In one study, couples agreed to receive, in the laboratory, minor blister wounds, and later were asked to discuss a subject on which they hotly disagreed, such as money or in-laws. Those couples who were rated by trained observers as "high hostile" during their discussions had more sluggish wound healing than couples rated as "low hostile." And when these same couples engaged in supportive conversations with little hostility, the wounds showed the speediest healing of all. (It's a function of pro-inflammatory cytokines, a chemical that shows up at greater levels in the bloodstream when we're stressed or engaged in hostile conflict — and it interferes with the body's natural healing.)

Does it mean we must avoid all conflict in order to protect our health? No. It's well-known that the healthiest relationships deal directly with differences rather than sweep them under the carpet, even when conflict is likely to result. The key is to maximize kindness and respect in how we speak to each other, especially during tough conversations.

Here are some ways to do that:

  1. Avoid put-downs that are guaranteed to inflame, trigger hurt feelings, and raise the level of hostility (for example, "You're stupid," "Only a jerk would say that," "I married a fool.")
  2. Eliminate swear words — they, too, inflame and encourage higher levels of hostility.
  3. Don't hit below the belt, where you know your partner is especially sensitive (for example, "You sound like your crazy father right now," or "You can't do anything right.")
  4. Avoid using absolutes like "never," or "always.” It's rarely true that our partners fail us 100% of the time, (for example, "You never listen when I talk to you.")
  5. Give one another a "rain check" when, during an argument, one or both of you feel flooded with a high level of upset, anger, or fear. Revisit the topic only after emotions have quieted down.
  6. Agree to disagree when you can't come to a resolution or compromise. Revisit the topic after time passes; perspectives sometimes change. 

If arguing with kindness seems nearly impossible, it may be that you or your partner are highly reactive and allow your emotions to shape what rolls off your tongue. That’s when learning to pause before speaking might be precisely what’s needed to turn things around (see The Mind’s Traffic).