Angry With Your Spouse? Let It Out

Early in his career, Harburg determined that one element was essential for anger to exist. There has to be a sense of unfairness, a false accusation for example and there has to be a sense of personal loss, like respect or self-esteem.

But by any definition, anger that is allowed to fester will "reinforce the morbid conditions in your body, and after 50 everybody's got at least one, like elevated blood pressure, bronchial difficulties, and so forth," Harburg said. "The combination will lead to earlier mortality."

The study reaches a wide range of conclusions, all of which are labeled preliminary because the study is ongoing and the numbers are still small because most of the participants are still alive. Here are a few of the findings:

  • Fifty percent of the 26 couples where both spouses suppressed anger have had at least one death, compared to only 25 percent of the couples where at least one spouse was willing to show anger and work toward resolution of the conflict.
  • Thirty-five percent of the husbands and 15 percent of the wives in the suppressed-couples group have died, compared to 17 percent of the husbands and 7 percent of the wives in the remaining couples.
  • "It appears that most women, unlike most men, want to express their negative and positive feelings and want them responded to [more than men] and find it 'punishing' when they are ignored."
  • "Suppressed anger and subsequent 'rumination' among women may be more intense, more frequent, and last longer than among men, thereby creating more severe psycho physiological consequences."
  • Couples in which the husband expresses anger and the wife suppresses it had the lowest mortality rate of all, a finding that the researchers call "unexpected."
  • Incidentally, there have been very few divorces among the older couples of Tecumseh.

    "They were into the old, classic marital style of staying together," Harburg mused.

    Harburg admits to having a powerful temper as a young man. Over the years he has learned to deal with his anger, "but my wife and four sons don't believe it."

    One of the things that comes with old age, he added, is a little mellowing. But his research suggests that if you want to reach that mellow stage, you shouldn't let the anger burn inside you.

    Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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