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Damaging debate.
Couples take longer to heal after stressful arguments.

Love is an Open Wound

Everyone knows relationships can be stressful, but a new study indicates that the verbal sticks and stones partners throw at each other can actually compromise their health. Researchers have found that when spouses fight, their cuts, scrapes, and blisters take longer to heal than when they are getting along.

Married or not, wounds begin to heal when compounds called cytokines tell disease fighting cells to start dividing and replicating. Some types of cytokines help the body manufacture immune cells on site, while others help recruit new cells to the scene of the crime. Previous research has shown that cytokine levels are elevated in people involved in stressful, long-term relationships, but no one had investigated how this affects wound healing.

So Janice Keicolt-Glaser, a psychologist at Ohio State University in Columbus, teamed up with her husband, immunologist Ron Glaser, to track cytokine levels in married couples. After screening 266 couples for health and marital quality, the team invited 42 long-term, happily married partners to make two separate over-night trips to the hospital. During the visits, the researchers drew blood from the volunteers and created a series of small, uniform blisters on each patient's arm using a suction device. At the first visit, the couples were told to have a supportive, comfortable conversation; the next time, they were asked to try to resolve a difficult marital conflict.

Based on the results, couples would be better off fighting when they're injury-free. On average, blisters took a day longer to heal when spouses squabbled versus when they got along, the researchers report in the December issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. In addition, cytokine levels at the site of injury were 8% lower after stressful conversations than after pleasant ones. And the more hostile partners were toward each other, the longer they took to heal. Those that demonstrated the most tension during an argument took two days longer to heal than calmer couples. Marital arguments didn't have to be overtly hostile to slow wound healing, however. Even the high stress couples rarely resorted to more than eye rolling, sarcasm, or inattentiveness, says Keicolt-Glaser. "These weren't knock down, drag out fights."

"The work substantially advances our understanding of how marital interactions can impact physical and mental health risk," says Michael Irwin, a psychiatrist at the Semel Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Posted in Biology, Brain & Behavior