A new study claims using thoughtful words while fighting with your partner is less stressful for couples.
Researchers at Penn State found that couples who bring thoughtful words to a fight release lower amounts of stress-related proteins, which means that rational communication between partners can ease the impact of marital conflict on the immune system.
"Previous research has shown that couples who are hostile to each other show health impairments and are at greater risk of disease. We wanted to know if couples who use thoughtfulness and reasoning in the midst of a fight incur potential health benefits," said Jennifer Graham, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, Penn State.
Individuals in a stressful situation-as in a troubled relationship-typically have elevated levels of chemicals known as cytokines. These proteins are produced by cells in the immune system and help the body mount an immune response during infection.
But abnormally high levels of these proteins are linked to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.
"Typically, if you bring people to a lab and put them under stress, either by engaging them in a conflict or giving them a public speaking task, you can see an increase in proinflammatory cytokines such as Interleukin-6 (Il-6) and tumour necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha)," explained Graham.
The researchers collected data and looked at levels of Il-6 and TNF-alpha in 42 married heterosexual couples both before and after marital discussion tasks.
"We specifically looked at words that are linked with cognitive processing in other research and which have been predictive of health in studies where people express emotion about stressful events. These are words like-think, because, reason, why-that suggest people are either making sense of the conflict or at least thinking about it in a deep way," explained Graham.
For the study, the 42 couples made two separate overnight visits over two weeks.
"We found that, controlling for depressed mood, individuals who showed more evidence of cognitive discussion during their fights showed smaller increases in both Il-6 and TNF-alpha cytokines over a 24-hour period," said Graham.
Cognitive words used during the neutral discussion had no effect on the cytokines.
On averaging the couples' cognitive words during the fight, they found a low average translated into a steeper increase in the husbands' Il-6 over time. There were no effects on the TNF-alpha.
However, neither couple's nor spouse's cognitive word use predicted changes in wives' Il-6, or TNF-alpha levels for either wives or husbands.
Graham speculates that women may be more adept at communication and perhaps their cognitive word use had a bigger impact on their husbands. Wives were also more likely than husbands to use cognitive words.
The findings of the study appear in the current issue of Health Psychology.