A new US study found that husbands and wives who suppressed their anger when one verbally attacked the other had a higher risk of early death compared to those who
expressed their anger.
The study is to be published in the January 2008 issue of the Journal of Family Communication, which is not yet available online, and was the work of researchers from the University of Michigan (U-M).
The research team enlisted 192 couples living in Tecumseh, Michigan, and followed them over 17 years. The spouses were aged between 35 and 69 years when the study began in 1971.
The couples were individually asked questions about how they dealt with anger in their marriage. They were asked to imagine they were being shouted at by their partner for something that they thought was not their fault, and then say how they would respond.
Anger suppression was defined as doing at least two of the following: not show anger, not object to the attack, feel guilty after showing anger.
The couples were placed into four groups, depending on whether they communicated their anger and resolved conflicts.
Group 1 was where both spouses communicated their anger when they felt unfairly attacked by the other; groups 2 and 3 were where one spouse communicated and the other suppressed his or her anger; and group 4 was where both partners suppressed their anger and brooded.
Lead author Dr Ernest Harburg, who is professor emeritus with the U-M School of Public Health and the Psychology Department, said that:
"Comparison between couples in which both people suppress their anger, and the three other types of couples, are very intriguing."
The researchers found that early death was twice as likely to occur in the group where both partners suppressed their anger, compared to the other three groups.
As Harburg said:
"When couples get together, one of their main jobs is reconciliation about conflict."
He said that usually people are not trained in how to resolve conflict in relationships. If they had parents that were good at it, they had role models to imitate, but otherwise couples don't know how to resolve conflict.
The key, said Harburg, is how do you resolve conflict when it happens?
He explained that:
"If you bury your anger, and you brood on it and you resent the other person or the attacker, and you don't try to resolve the problem, then you're in trouble."
The study only examined anger resulting from attacks that were considered unfair or undeserved by the person on the receiving end, said Harburg. People who perceive the attack as "fair", don't get angry, he said.
Harburg and his co-researchers found that of the 192 couples they followed:
- In 26 of them, both partners suppressed their anger.
- There were 13 deaths over the period of study in that group.
- In the remaining 166 couples, there was a total of 41 deaths (all of the three other groups combined).
- In 27 per cent of the couples where both suppressed anger, one of the partners died, and in 23 per cent, both died, during the study period.
- This compared to just 19 per cent of couples in the remaining three groups where one partner died and 6 per cent where both partners died.
The researchers said these numbers were small, but gave a preliminary view of the likely conclusions. They are in the process of gathering 30 year follow up data, which will include double the numbers of deaths.
It is also important that readers note this study only established a link between anger suppression and death. Although it ruled out certain risk factors like health, age and lifestyle, it did not establish that anger suppression caused early death. There could be an unexplored factor that linked the two.
"Marital Pair Anger Coping Types May Act as an Entity to Affect Mortality: Preliminary Findings from a Prospective Study (Tecumseh, Michigan, 1971- 88)."
Ernest Harburg, Niko Kaciroti, and Lillian Gleiberman.
Journal of Family Communication, Vol 8, issue 1, 2008.
Click here for Journal of Family Communication.
Sources: University of Michigan press release, CBS News.
Written by: Catharine Paddock