Arguments and fights with family, friends, partners, and even neighbors are inevitable. Although these experiences are stressful, we seldom think about the possible long-term health risks they pose, especially in the heat of the moment. If you’re hot-headed, temperamental, and stubborn, you may want to adopt a better strategy to deal with conflict. People who frequently argue with family and friends or worry too much about their loved ones, are up to three times as likely to die in middle age, compared to their less argumentative counterparts, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.
"Having an argument every now and then is fine, but having it all the time seems dangerous," said Rikke Lund, study researcher, and an associate professor of medical sociology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, according to LiveScience. Social relations' stressful aspects such as conflicts, demands, insensitivity, and worries, have been associated with physiological factors detrimental to our health. They can cause a dysregulation of endocrine, cardiovascular, and even immune system functioning.
When it comes to the relationship between stressful social relations in private life and all-cause mortality, there is limited research, but Lund and his colleagues sought to probe further into this topic. The team of Danish researchers investigated the link between stressful social relations and partners, children, other family, friends and neighbors, and the all-cause mortality in middle-aged men and women in a large cohort. The study analyzed a total of 10,000 men and women, aged 36 to 52, from the Danish Longitudinal Study on Work, Unemployment, and Health. Using this data, the researchers were able to track the health of the participants between 2000 and 2011.
The participants were questioned on their social relationships in everyday life, focusing on who made excess demands toward the participants, who caused worries, or who was a source of conflict, and how often these situations arose. A couple of the questions were: “In your everyday life, do you experience that any of the following people demand too much of you or seriously worry you?" and “In your everyday life, do you experience conflicts with any of the following people?” Participants could choose friends, neighbors, partners, extended family, or children as a response.
What did they find?
By the end of the study, 196 women and 226 men had passed away, with approximately half of these deaths being the result of cancer and the rest caused by heart disease, stroke, liver disease, accidents, and suicide, according to the press release. Ten percent of all the participants in the study revealed their partner or children were a frequent or ongoing source of worries and excess demands. Six percent of the participants said their relatives often caused worries and had excess demands, two percent said they often argued with other relatives, and only one percent said they frequently argued with their neighbors.
These frequent worries and demands caused by partners and/or children were linked to a 50 to 100 percent increased risk of death from all causes. However, when it came to how frequent arguing impacted all-cause mortality, Lund and his colleagues found that constant conflict with anyone in the participant’s social circle was associated with a double to triple risk of death from all causes. "This study suggests that stressful social relations, ranging from partners to neighbors, are associated with mortality risk among middle-aged men and women,” wrote the researchers, Time magazine reported. “Conflicts, especially, were associated with higher mortality risk, regardless of whom was the source of the conflict. Worries and demands were only associated with mortality risk if they were related to partners or children.”
Men were especially vulnerable to these frequent worries/demands from their partner, which contradicts the popular belief that women are more susceptible to stressful social situations. Men and those who were both unemployed and involved in the most arguments had the highest risk of early death. It seems that being out of work heightened the negative effects of social relationship stressors for the male participants. These men were also at a significantly greater risk of death from any cause compared to their employed counterparts, who were still exposed to similar stressors.
Although the researchers were unable to unveil the exact reason why social relationship pressures increased the risk of death for those of middle-age, there are some factors that were taken into account. Such stressful social relationships have been associated with increased levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — high blood pressure, angina, and high inflammation levels. The stresses could take a toll on a individual's physical health, and therefore increase their mortality.
Stress harms our physical and psychological health, according to Harvard Health Publications, as repeated activation of our stress response can cause brain changes that could lead to anxiety, depression, and addiction. Skills in conflict management could help curb stress and its effect on our body, decreasing our mortality.
Christensen U, Kriegbaum M, Lund R, Nilsson CJ, Rod NH. Stressful social relations and mortality: a prospective cohort study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2014.