Does Arguing Make You Sick?

Reports on the health risks associated with marital fights. Study by psychologists at Ohio State University; Reduction of body supply of disease-fighting immune cells; Greater increase of stress hormone levels and blood pressure in wives than husbands.

By Samantha Nicosia, Peter Doskoch, published on September 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Nasty fights are not only hazardous to your marriage, they're hazardous to your health. And women and the elderly' have the most to lose.

Psychologists at Ohio State University report that when marital discussions disintegrate into a flurry of put-downs and sarcasm, our immune systems pay the price. Stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine kick in, and while those substances help us react to physical danger, they reduce our body's supply of disease-fighting immune cells.

But the health impact of quarreling isn't shared equally Until recently, many experts assumed that men bore the brunt of the physical effects of bickering. That's why, the theory went, husbands often withdraw from marital melees. But now researchers have found that stress hormone levels and blood pressure rise far more in wives--probably because they tend to remember and dwell on disputes afterward, says Ohio State psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D.

The other big losers in marital conflicts are elderly couples. Forty-odd years into a marriage, arguments still take a severe toll on a couple's immune systems. And since older individuals are already more vulnerable to illness, for them frequent fracases may be particularly threatening.

While conflict is inevitable in any relationship, keeping the fights fair will at least minimize the health risks. "Avoid sarcasm and name-calling," says Ohio State's Ronald Glaser, Ph.D. "And stick to resolving the issue."

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