How you deal with relationship conflict may cause literal aches in your heart—and head and back. Here’s the healthy way to hash it out.
Fighting goes hand in hand with loving, but even if you kiss and make up afterward, it can still be rough on your body. Shouters, screamers, and red-faced foot stompers can raise their risk of high blood pressure, chest pain, and, potentially, heart disease, according to researchers who analyzed couples’ fighting styles in a 20-year study. Fans of the silent treatment, meanwhile, may face health risks of their own, primarily chronic back pain likely caused by a tense upper body. Fortunately, no matter which type of fighter you are, you can change the way you argue with these three steps:
1. Heed your body’s warnings.
Before a fiery fighter opens her mouth, she may feel her face heat up and her heart beat faster, says Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD, president of the Gottman Institute, a relationship research center in Seattle she cofounded with her husband, John Gottman, PhD. And stonewallers can feel themselves tensing up before they clam up. Paying attention to these physical red flags can help you respond in a way that’s less reactive and more rational.
2. Call for a cooldown.
Stepping away from an escalating argument slows your heart rate and puts you in a more positive frame of mind, says Gottman. He suggests you and your partner create a hand signal for an intentional “time-out” so your break doesn’t feel like you’re bailing. Agree to meet back in 30 minutes, then go find some peace and quiet. While apart, angry types might want to take a few deep breaths; stonewallers can do some stretches and neck rolls. If either of you could benefit from additional time, ask for it. “You want to feel calm so you can listen and be listened to,” Gottman says.
3. Say what you need.
Almost any argument will go better, says Schwartz Gottman, if you start by talking about your feelings instead of your partner’s actions. Use this formula: Say “I feel…” and insert your emotion—”upset,” “worried,” “mad” (don’t just say “I feel…that you’re a jerk!”). Then state why: “…about the bills not being paid on time.” End by telling your partner how he or she can make you happy: “I’d love it if you would pay the bills tonight.” This straightforward, insult-free approach is less emotionally and physically taxing for everyone involved—and just might make your ever after a little happier.
Hearts on Fire
During an argument, the heart can pound at over 100 beats per minute, according to relationship expert John Gottman, PhD. (Typical resting rate is 60 to 100 bpm.) High numbers mean the heart is being forced to work harder.