There are toilet-paper tiffs, thermostat scuffles, ongoing debates over money, sex and the television remote. And then there are the laundry wars. "My husband has this thing with laundry that drives me nuts," says Amelia Zatik-Sawyer, a 28-year-old mother of two in Cleveland.
"He's supposed to wash and I'm supposed to fold, but he does like 10 loads at a time and then dumps it all on the bed. With two little kids, I don't have time to fold 10 loads all at once, so I'll leave it. And then he'll come home and throw it into the closet so he can get into bed. And then it just spirals out of control from there."
For many couples, spats are a necessary evil, something to endure or avoid (for the sake of the kids!). But new research at the University of Michigan shows that hashing out marital disagreements is actually good for your health. It's squelching anger, especially when you feel you've been wronged, that's dangerous.
A study published in January followed 192 married couples in Michigan from 1971 to 1988 and found that those who kept their anger in when unfairly attacked did not live as long as those who expressed their anger, says lead study author Ernest Harburg, Ph.D., an emeritus research scientist at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health and psychology department.
"We're all interested in longevity," says Harburg, who's studied the health effects of spousal sparring for over 30 years. "We watch our diet, we exercise. Now we need to add 'express anger constructively' to that list."
Women in particular may put their health at risk by holding back during arguments with their spouse, a 10-year study of 4,000 men and women from Framingham, Massachusetts, found. "Women who 'self-silenced' during conflict with their spouse, compared with women who did not, had four times the risk of dying, " according to findings published in 2007 in the journal "Psychosomatic Medicine." But high schools don't offer Squabbling 101. So what are the nuts and bolts of a healthy fight?
Harburg says the first step is to let the person know you're mad -- the sooner, the better.
"You can either express your anger directly or you can say, 'That makes me angry, but I don't want to talk about it now; let's discuss it later'," he says. "But in order to solve the problem, you need to first express your emotions."
For some, even acknowledging a problem can be a problem.
Eunice Verstegen of Seattle, a program manager for a large county agency, says her upbringing in Wisconsin prevented her from voicing her true feelings with her first husband, who was her polar opposite politically, emotionally and even gastronomically.
"I was taught to be nice and to keep my feelings buried," she says. "And as a result, I was silently miserable. But with my second husband, if something bothers me, I don't let it simmer. I speak right up."
Don't pout, let it out
Others let their actions do the talking.
"When I'm mad about something, I'll do the heavy sighing thing or toss the silverware as I unload the dishwasher, which drives my husband nuts," says Jackie Papandrew, 44, a syndicated columnist from Largo, Florida. "To him, the silent treatment is the worst thing in the world. He'll pester me and pester me until I finally blow up or laugh."
Papandrew admits she's also gone the passive-aggressive route, like the time she hid the remote because she was angry her husband watched so much TV -- and forgot where she hid it.
"If pouting leads to talking about the issue, then you're ahead of the game," says Harburg. "But passive-aggressive behavior doesn't work. It doesn't solve the problem. The best thing is if you can establish some kind of ritual, like regularly sitting down at a table to talk about your issues."
Communication and compromise
Laundry warrior Zatik-Sawyer uses a digital version of the kitchen-table confessional.
"My blog has become my therapy," she says. "When I have issues, I'll write a blog post and my husband will read it at work. And then he'll come home and we'll talk about the problem and solve it. If we have issues, they never really last longer than a couple of hours."
Harburg says both partners have to be willing to listen and work toward a compromise; otherwise it's a no-go.
"If you get into a zone where someone's impeding the discussion, then you can't solve the problem," he says. "Fear, intimidation, dirty looks, belittling remarks -- that's over the line. But if you can listen to each other, and hear what the other person is feeling and thinking, then you can reach a compromise: 'OK, I won't do this if you won't do that.'"
One final tip: Keep your sense of humor.
"Years ago, my husband and I were having a big spat, really yelling at each other," says Verstegen. "I screamed at him, 'You're so selfish!' There was this long silence and then he said, 'Did you just call me a shellfish?' I started laughing and that was the end of the fight."
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