Shrewd Living

Last Updated: 07/02/2014 9:12 PST

Fighting With Your Spouse Triggers This Disease

Argued with your partner lately about not taking out the trash? Believe it or not, doing so frequently–something experts refer to as “pity fights”–could increase your risk for heart problems, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.

The study, which was published earlier this month, says that couples that feel ambivalent towards each other–thinking that their spouse is both helpful and upsetting–are most likely to have higher levels of coronary artery calcification, or CAC.

And this, researchers say, could increase your risk for coronary artery disease.

“There is a large body of epidemiological research suggesting that our relationships are predictors of mortality rates, especially from cardiovascular disease,” says researcher Bert Uchino, a psychological scientist from the University of Utah. “But most prior work has ignored the fact that many relationships are characterized by both positive and negative aspects–in other words, ambivalence.”

In the study, Uchino–with colleagues Timothy Smith and Cynthia Berg–recruited 136 older couples to fill out questionnaires about their marriage, which researchers used to measure the quality of their relationship. In detail, they also asked each partner to indicate how their spouse made them feel when they needed support or advice, such as if the spouse made the situation worse by making the person upset.

Then, after the questionnaire was completed, researchers examined the amount of calcification in their coronary arteries, and came to a surprising conclusion.

For both partners who indicated their relationship had both bad and good times, their risk of CAC was significantly higher, putting them at a higher risk for coronary artery disease. But when only one of the partners indicated that the relationship was ambivalent, chances were this risk wasn’t as high.

As for why this is the case, researchers aren’t sure.

“The findings suggest that couples who have more ambivalent views of each other actively interact or process relationship information in ways that increase their stress or undermine the supportive potential in the relationship,” says Uchino. “This, in turn, may influence their cardiovascular disease risk.”

In addition, the Texas Heart Institute says that experiencing feelings of anger or stress–such as the emotions experienced during a “pity fight”–can cause actual physical problems, and over time, can build up to a more serious disease.

“These feelings of anger and or stress can lead to a series of health problems such as high blood pressure, or hypertension,” writes the Texas Heart Institute. “Individuals with higher stress hormones may trigger the tightening of the small arteries–arterioles, which regulate the blood flow through the body–and cause the heart to work harder to pump blood through the small space.”

Bottom line? Even small fights in your relationship matter, as far your heart is concerned.

What You Should Do

If you’re worried about your coronary artery disease risk, prevention just may be in the form of learning to love your spouse better. What to do: The next time you’re tempted to complain about chores or finances, take a moment to think about if it’s really worth fighting over–and if so, find some way to de-stress afterward. A nice, warm bath, exercise, or meditation can ease the heart after a fight and may reduce the symptoms that often lead to coronary artery disease.


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