Occasional arguments are par for the course in any healthy marriage. But true marital discord can be both psychologically and physically damaging. Fighting with one’s spouse is stressful, and stress has been shown to affect immunity. For example, stress affects the production of cytokines , an immune cell chemical that plays a role in wound healing and many other functions of the immune system.

In an article published in the December 2005 Archives of General Psychiatry , researchers sought to determine whether the stress associated with marital conflict affected the ability of wounds to heal. They found that local cytokine production was lower and wounds healed more slowly after couples had been fighting, compared to when they’d interacted supportively. In addition, wounds healed 40% more slowly in couples that were deemed to be more hostile towards one another compared to couples characterized as less hostile.

About the Study

The researchers recruited 42 couples who’d been married an average of 12 years, and brought them into a research center for two 24-hour visits. During each visit, the researchers created eight blisters on the arms of the husbands and wives. The researchers sampled fluid from the wound sites and drew blood samples several times during the visit, and for 12 days after each visit. During the first session, researchers asked the couples to have a supportive, positive discussion. During the second session, the couples were asked to discuss an emotional subject about which they disagreed. The discussions were videotaped and analyzed to determine the level of hostility between the couples.

The researchers found that cytokine levels were lower, and that wounds took one day longer to heal, after arguments than after supportive discussions. Couples who were deemed to be more hostile overall healed 40% slower than couples determined to be less hostile. In addition, the more hostile couples had higher levels of cytokines in their blood than the less hostile couples. (Local production of cytokines can help heal wounds, but certain cytokines circulating in the bloodstream have been linked to inflammation associated with certain chronic diseases.)

How Does This Affect You

This study demonstrated that arguments slowed wound healing in all couples and that couples who were more hostile towards each other took longer to heal than couples who were less hostile. The more hostile couples also had higher circulating levels of cytokines. The point of the study is not that physical wounds inflicted during an argument will take longer to heal (although they probably will). Rather, the results imply that marital strife might be making husband and wife more susceptible to a variety of chronic illnesses.

While these results are certainly provocative, what this type of study could not show is whether long-term, persistent marital stress actually leads to an increased risk of heart disease , arthritis , and other diseases associated with inflammation. Nevertheless, many years of stressful relations at home is likely to take a toll, not only emotionally, but physically. It stands to reason that ending or mending this kind of relationship would be beneficial to everyone’s health.