Is Your Spouse Hurting
Your Heart?

MSNBC STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS - Couples plagued by routine marital strife are undoubtedly in an unhealthy situation. And now a study has documented just how detrimental that squabbling can be. Researchers at the University of Utah found that people whose spouses are particularly dominant or controlling experience blood pressure hikes that may raise their risk of heart disease.
Research has shown that couples who have been taught fair-fighting skills have smaller increases in blood pressure when they argue.
In the study, published in the current issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, researchers hooked 45 young couples up to blood-pressure monitors and asked them to argue opposing positions on a given topic - how to carry out large teaching staff cuts at a hypothetical local school. Participants also completed questionnaires about their marital relationship.
Results showed that arguing with a partner who was perceived as dominant was associated with larger increases in blood pressure than arguing with a spouse considered to be more submissive, reported lead author Timothy W. Smith, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Smith said people whose partners are particularly controlling are at greatest risk. "They are certainly experiencing the greatest cardiovascular stress," he said.
Husbands or wives who perceived their spouses as submissive tended to have the smallest increase in blood pressure during arguments, according to the report. What can be done to improve the situation?
Smith suggests that combative couples get help to learn how to argue more fairly. Research has shown that couples who have been taught fair-fighting skills have smaller increases in blood pressure when they argue, he said.
"For example, they learn not to demean or belittle the other person,s opinions and not to attack their character," Smith explained. "They also learn not to attribute malicious intent to their opponent. They are taught to clearly and effectively express their own feelings about something and to make sure to express an understanding of the other person's point of view before moving on to explaining their own."
An expert in marital relations said the study results aren't surprising.
Researchers have been looking into the role of emotions as an influence on hypertension since the 1950s, said Dr. Dave M. Davis, director of the Piedmont Psychiatric Clinic in Atlanta. "It's pretty well accepted that anger has something to do with hypertension," he said.
On the other hand, being nice also has health effects, Davis said. For example, one researcher asked a group of men to take the time to kiss their wives good-bye in the morning and as a greeting in the evening.
The result? Their blood pressure dropped, Davis said.
The Medical Tribune News Service contributed to this report.