How a Disagreement from 16 Years Ago Can Affect Your Health Today
Our relationships are incredibly important for our health. In fact, relationships are just as important as how often we drink, smoke, or exercise, if not more so. For many people, this is a good thing because happy marriages can actually boost health. For others, though, the stress from their marriage can hurt their health.
A common source of stress that nearly all couples experience is conflict, such as disagreements and arguments. If you are in a relationship, think about the last time you and your partner disagreed about something. Did you feel like your partner cared about and valued your opinion? Or, did you feel like your partner didn’t care and tuned you out? Research suggests that these feelings can affect your health.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who has disagreements with their partner will have poor health. All couples, even those that are generally happy with their relationship, disagree about a variety of things—who to spend the holidays with, where to go to dinner, who should empty the dishwasher, or how to spend their tax returns. But, of course, some couples also have disagreements more often than others.
My collaborators and I wondered whether people’s disagreements in their relationships add up over time. Couples may be able to deal with occasional disagreements, but what if they regularly disagree about all sorts of things? How many topics are too many? How often is too often? And can these disagreements add up over time to overpower their ability to work through their issues?
To answer these questions, we talked to the same married couples every few years over the course of 16 years. We asked what they disagreed about, how many topics they disagreed about, and how often they disagreed. We also inquired about their health, asking, for example, whether their health affected their work, whether they felt healthy enough to do what they wanted to do, and if they were having trouble sleeping.
Looking at the graph below, you can see that nearly 80% of couples disagreed about money at each of the four times we talked to them. The next most frequently debated topic was kids, which tended to increase over time; the longer couples were married, the more likely they were to disagree about children. The third topic many couples disagreed about was what to do for fun in their leisure time. Religion was the least-debated topic, perhaps because many people marry someone with similar religious beliefs.
Our main question was how these disagreements within people’s relationships were associated with their health over time.
For wives, disagreements added up over time and took a toll on their health. Our data suggested that wives were able to deal with disagreeing with their husbands about one or two issues, but disagreeing about a number of issues, over many years, eventually affected their health. In other words, for wives, disagreeing about several topics over a long period of time predicted poorer health.
For husbands, on the other hand, disagreeing about multiple topics over the years didn’t seem to have implications for their health. Instead, husbands’ health was impacted by how often they disagreed with their wives each year. The key piece here is that disagreements were particularly harmful in years when couples disagreed more often than husbands were used to disagreeing. That is, husbands had worse health in the years in which the couples argued more frequently than usual.
Why did women have worse health when they disagreed about several issues over the 16 years of the study? Perhaps it was because women tend to think about problems in their relationships more than men do. So, disagreeing about many topics over a long time may have led women to worry about who they were as individuals and as a couple, and that kind of stress was associated with poorer health.
Why were men instead affected by having a year with more conflicts than average? Perhaps it was because husbands benefit from avoiding contentious discussions with their wives, and they did not cope well with the increased number of arguments. When husbands experienced more disagreements than they were used to, they might not have been able to avoid these discussions or effectively deal with the disagreements, which wound up undermining their health.
Couples disagree about all sorts of topics, and they disagree in many different ways. This wide variety in couples’ styles of conflict and communication allows researchers to study how disagreements affect health in many ways and over different spans of time—in the moment, the next day, and years later. Our research suggests that conflicts over many years can pile up and negatively impact wives’ and husbands’ health in different ways.
Although all couples disagree, research shows that the key to conflict is how couples manage it. Couples that are the most successful in dealing with conflict are those who are open and honest with each other, those who try not to blame one another, and those who support each other when issues arise. Remember that you and your partner are a team and that you can become stronger by working through your differences together.
For Further Reading
Shrout, M. R., Brown, R. D., Orbuch, T. L., & Weigel, D. J. (2019). A multidimensional examination of marital conflict and health over 16 years. Personal Relationships, 26, 490-506. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12292
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Wilson, S. J. (2017). Lovesick: How couples’ relationships influence health. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 13, 421-443. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816- 045111
Umberson, D., & Thomeer, M. B. (2020). Family matters: Research on family ties and health, 2010 to 2020. Journal of Marriage and Family, 82(1), 404-419. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12640
M. Rosie Shrout is a postdoctoral scholar in The Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. She studies the effects of stress on couples’ relationships and health.