Health Advice for Couples: When Arguing, Be Careful What You Say Audio Clip Available

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: how the words that couples use when they fight could affect their health.

RS: In a new study, forty-two married couples made two overnight visits to a laboratory to discuss their biggest areas of disagreement. Researchers drew blood before and after the sessions to look at levels of proteins known as pro-inflammatory cytokines. These molecules help fight off infections, but their levels can also rise with psychological stress.

AA: And there is evidence that a lot of stress can unbalance the immune system and put us at risk of disease. The study took place at Ohio State University, but Jennifer Graham from Penn State analyzed the data.
Jennifer Graham
JENNIFER GRAHAM: "So I looked at these transcripts of what people actually said. And I focused on words that are related to insight and reasoning. The use of these types of words when describing stress and your reactions to stress, has been associated with positive mental and physical health outcomes.

"And so I found that, in fact, the individuals who used the most words indicative of cognitive processing -- and these are words like think, reason, because, why; things like that -- that those individuals actually showed lower pro-inflammatory cytokine increases over the twenty-four hour period that we observed them. And they actually had lower levels at that twenty-four hour time period as well. So smaller increases and also lower absolute levels."

AA: "First of all, were there any differences between the husbands and wives in who would use more of these sort of thoughtful words, versus more hostile words?"

JENNIFER GRAHAM: "Yeah, there were some interesting gender differences. Men and women used an equal amount of words over all, which I think is important, but women used more of the cognitive processing words. And, in fact, women's cognitive word use actually predicted their husband's, at least one of the cytokine's change over time. And then the spousal average cognitive word use predicted husbands' cytokine patterns over time. But the men's cognitive word use did not predict a woman's."

AA: "So what does that mean, in plain English, what does that mean?"

JENNIFER GRAHAM: "I do think it's interesting, I think it may reflect the fact that women seem to be more likely in our society to spend time thinking about these types of conflicts, and maybe resolving them in their minds more often, doing more of that rumination about some of these conflicts. And so perhaps [they] are already sort of a little farther along down that process, perhaps, and therefore may be more able to influence husbands' by their word use."

RS: "Where do you hope to go with this data? And what are the next steps for you?"

JENNIFER GRAHAM: "What I think this shows is that this sort of process of making meaning from stress, that we're sort of seeing reflected in this word-use pattern, is really important for people. You know, it's impossible to avoid stressors, but if you have to deal with them, finding ways to sort of incorporate them into your worldview and make sense of them, and also be able to articulate that clearly to another, is really important. And I would love to do a study down the road where I'm actually able to try to manipulate that in sort of an intervention kind of design, and then actually look to see the effects of that manipulation."

AA: "So when you're talking about these words like think, because, reason, why -- I mean, this is, let's say the woman, the wife, saying 'The reason why --

JENNIFER GRAHAM: "Exactly. 'The reason why I'm mad is because ... '

AA: ' -- you bug me so much is the reason why I'm mad.'"

JENNIFER GRAHAM: "But I know you're interested in words, and I think it's fascinating that you could use that same word in a negative way, right? You could say 'I want to tell you why I hate you so much.' Or you could be mean with those words."

AA: "But that's not what you found, you found that the levels in the blood of these stress-related proteins tended to go down the more of these came up in the con -- "

JENNIFER GRAHAM: "Those words were used, that's right."

RS: "So what advice would you have for both [married] couples and perhaps our listeners who speak English as a [foreign language] "

JENNIFER GRAHAM: "I would just say, when you do find yourself fighting, when possible it really is a very powerful thing if you can find the words to be really clear, not just about how you feel, but why. And being able to articulate that in a way that the other person can understand may not only help your relationship but possibly benefit your health as well."

AA: Jennifer Graham is an assistant professor at Penn State University. Her findings appear in the journal Health Psychology.

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.