Effect of Marital Conflict on Healing

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To Heal or Not to Heal

Comparison of blisters on stressed individual and non-stressed individualSmall differences in marital strife made big differences in the healing time.

Most people think a good marriage will make you happy. But can a good marriage keep you healthy, as well? In "To Heal or Not to Heal," researchers at Ohio State University explore links between the psychological health of a marriage and the physical health of the couple.

First the scientists give their married subjects superficial skin wounds on the arm - eight small blisters created with a suction cup. Psychologist Tim Loving then asks the couples to assess how much they agree or disagree on certain issues-in-laws, finances, housework and so on. By measuring stress hormone levels in the blood while monitoring how quickly the immune systems mobilize to heal the blisters, the researchers can determine if the psychological stress of marriage can affect the immune system, and physical health in general.

researcher with subjectPhoto of a Eve and Bud
Researchers asked married couples to squabble to measure the effects of stress.

Meet Eve and Bud, happily married for 13 years. In the lab, they're asked to argue while their vital signs and stress hormone levels are measured. Eve and Bud rehash a well-worn argument over Bud's hearing aid, but anyone can tell they just aren't that angry with each other. The argument elicits no stress hormones in their blood streams, and their blisters heal quickly and completely.

Deb and Mike are relatively happily married, but the couple finds it all too easy to argue over division of household responsibility. This small amount of stress translates into a big delay in healing. Deb and Mike's blisters remained unhealed at day 6, while at the same stage the blisters were nearly healed in less stressed couples like Eve and Bud. So psychological stress has a clear negative impact on physical health.

What can be done? In another OSU study, researchers give 57 med students the same blisters they gave the married couples and tracked the healing process the same way. The students were divided into two groups; one group coped with their hectic lives on their own, while the other group attended frequent relaxation sessions. Just as with the less stressed married couples, those in the second group healed faster. So even though prolonged stress really can make us sick, simple relaxation techniques can counteract its negative effects.

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More recent experiment by same team (2010)

Marital behavior oxytocin vasopressin and wound healing.
Gouin JP, Carter CS, Pournajafi-Nazarloo H, Glaser R, Malarkey WB, Loving TJ, Stowell J, Kiecolt-Glaser JK.
Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2010 Feb 6; [Epub ahead of print]
Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University, USA; Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, The Ohio State University College of Medicine, USA.

Animal studies have implicated oxytocin and vasopressin in social bonding, physiological stress responses, and wound healing. In humans, endogenous oxytocin and vasopressin levels covary with perceptions of relationship quality, marital behaviors, and physiological stress responses. To investigate relationships among marital behavior, oxytocin, vasopressin, and wound healing, and to determine the characteristics of individuals with the highest neuropeptide levels, 37 couples were admitted for a 24-h visit in a hospital research unit. After small blister wounds were created on their forearm, couples participated in a structured social support interaction task. Blister sites were monitored daily following discharge to assess wound repair speed. Blood samples were collected for oxytocin, vasopressin, and cytokine analyses. Higher oxytocin levels were associated with more positive communication behaviors during the structured interaction task. Furthermore, individuals in the upper oxytocin quartile healed blister wounds faster than participants in lower oxytocin quartiles. Higher vasopressin levels were related to fewer negative communication behaviors and greater tumor necrosis factor-alpha production. Moreover, women in the upper vasopressin quartile healed the experimental wounds faster than the remainder of the sample. These data confirm and extend prior evidence implicating oxytocin and vasopressin in couples' positive and negative communication behaviors, and also provide further evidence of their role in an important health outcome, wound healing.