Angry With Your Spouse? Let It Out

Here's the latest word on surviving an angry marriage: have a fight. It could save your life.

A new study out of the University of Michigan has produced a startling finding. Couples that suppress their anger when they have been unfairly attacked, either by the spouse or someone else, are twice as likely to die earlier than persons who admit they are angry and deal with their problem.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that suppressing anger can be deadly because it drives up blood pressure and contributes to anxiety and depression, but this study takes it a bit further. If one spouse suppresses his or her anger, that individual is likely to die earlier. But if both spouses suppress their anger, the odds go through the roof.

"What intrigued me was the percent of double deaths, where they both died," research scientist Ernest Harburg said in an interview.

Harburg and his colleagues have been studying several hundred families in the Michigan village of Tecumseh since 1971. For the latest study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Family Communication, the researchers divided 166 couples into four groups, one of which consisted of couples where both spouses described themselves years ago as unwilling to show their anger.

Three of the groups consisted of couples where one or the other might suppress anger, but not both. Both spouses have died in only 6 percent of those couples.

But in the fourth group, where both spouses suppress their anger, 23 percent of both the husbands and the wives have died.

That, Harburg said, is extraordinary because there have not been a lot of deaths among the study participants, so 23 percent of both spouses is a very large figure.

Harburg, who at 81 is one of the nation's leading experts on anger, said Americans are reluctant to show their anger, and that makes the anger less likely to go away.

"Anger is interesting in the American culture," he said. "You're not supposed to express your anger. That's the norm, and we have to ease out of that norm and say it's healthy to express your anger and move on to solve the problem."

Of course, he doesn't mean that if a husband and wife get into a dispute they should declare war on each other. The trick is to make sure the other person knows you're angry, and then try to "achieve consensus."

"First, you have to listen," he said. "You have to understand the other person's point of view. You have to understand your own point of view. And then you have to use your imagination to resolve the problem. Some people are good at it, but most people aren't."

In those who aren't, their anger may fester, which can gradually gnaw away at the body's survival system.

Tecumseh, the setting for the study, is a small, rural community south of Ann Arbor, Mich., and it is not typical of the country's overall population. As the study notes, it is "ethnically homogeneous [Anglo-Saxon], with little socioeconomic diversity or conflict," and the participants were "born and raised prior to the 1960-70 sexual revolution."

It's difficult to study anger, Harburg said, because the word is so vague. There is no overall scientific definition of the word, he added, because each discipline has its own definition, and "they don't talk to each other."

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.