Interpersonal Emotional Behaviors and Physical Health: A 20-Year Longitudinal Study of Long-Term Married Couples

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Abstract

Objectively coded interpersonal emotional behaviors that emerged during a 15-min marital conflict interaction predicted the development of physical symptoms in a 20-year longitudinal study of long-term marriages. Dyadic latent growth curve modeling showed that anger behavior predicted increases in cardiovascular symptoms and stonewalling behavior predicted increases in musculoskeletal symptoms. Both associations were found for husbands (although cross-lagged path models also showed some support for wives) and were controlled for sociodemographic characteristics (age, education) and behaviors (i.e., exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, caffeine consumption) known to influence health. Both associations did not exist at the start of the study, but only emerged over the ensuing 20 years. There was some support for the specificity of these relationships (i.e., stonewalling behavior did not predict cardiovascular symptoms; anger behavior did not predict musculoskeletal symptoms; neither symptom was predicted by fear nor sadness behavior), with the anger-cardiovascular relationship emerging as most robust. Using cross-lagged path models to probe directionality of these associations, emotional behaviors predicted physical health symptoms over time (with some reverse associations found as well). These findings illuminate longstanding theoretical and applied issues concerning the association between interpersonal emotional behaviors and physical health and suggest opportunities for preventive interventions focused on specific emotions to help address major public health problems.

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