Contact: Kyle Bourassa, M.A.
For Release: January 1, 2019
We have all seen married couples who look like stark opposites when it comes to anger expression: One of them is determined to hash out everything when they’re angry, while the stoic spouse barely seems annoyed even amid infuriating scenarios. Do these apparently complementary styles in marriage make for a healthy match?
On the contrary, the further apart middle-aged spouses are in their anger expression styles, the more likely that both of them will be dead 32 years later, finds a novel new study that looks at the link between spouses’ anger-coping match and their likelihood of staying alive into their 70s and 80s.
Each spouse’s own anger style alone did not predict his or her odds of dying. “It’s the match between the two of them that matters,” says Kyle Bourassa, M.A., a doctoral candidate in psychology at University of Arizona, who did the study with colleague David Sbarra, Ph.D. It’s published in the January issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
Starting with 192 couples mostly in their 40s, researchers had asked spouses how they would react typically to six anger-provoking situations– three with a police officer and three with a spouse. Participants chose from a range of five reactions. At one end of the spectrum, spouses could reply that they’d get angry and show it; at the other end, they might say they wouldn’t even become annoyed. In-between there were options of feeling anger but not expressing it or feeling annoyance and expressing this or keeping it in.
In Bourassa’s follow-up study on mortality 32 years later, huge differences surfaced between mismatched and well matched couples. Husbands at the far end of the “let it all hang out” anger expression scale married to women with a similar expressive style were about half as likely to have died as the very expressive husbands whose wives were least apt to feel or express anger—25% of the well matched expressive men had died versus 52% of those mated with least expressive women. For wives, the lowest death rates—18%– came if they had a highly expressive style and so did their husbands; if they expressed the least anger and were mated to expressive husbands, 36% of the women had died.
These differences remained significant even after accounting for age, smoking, blood pressure and income, all key factors that could influence mortality rates. The researchers don’t know how many of these spouses had divorced during the 32 years, but their age at the start put them beyond the prime years for divorce, says Bourassa.
“Expressive husbands may experience frustration with wives who don’t engage during arguments, and wives might be upset if husbands’ anger styles are much different than their own,” says Bourassa. This mutual frustration is likely to spur unpleasant interactions over time, possibly increasing heart rate, blood pressure and overall stress, which could shorten life. Lower quality marriages also are known to contribute to poor health, Bourassa adds.
The two take-home messages for couples are awareness and flexibility, he emphasizes. “Ideally, be aware of the differences in how you choose to interact with others before you get married. After marriage, stay aware about how you express your anger and try to meet each other part-way. Being flexible is important. The more spouses are able to be flexible and match each other when possible, the better off they’ll likely be,” says Bourassa. Couples therapy also can help if there are persistent disputes around anger styles, he notes.
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (http://www.psychosomatic.org),
founded in 1942, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that conducts an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”