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We all know we're supposed to fight fairly. But the best way to disagree? Experts urge couples to use analytical language in the heat of the moment.
| || || | Stress researchers have proven that hostile relationships wreck our health. A report earlier this year found that women in bad marriages are especially at risk for depression and heart disease. But few researchers have focused on practical ways people can stay well during relationship rough patches. A new study of married couples, however, has found physiological evidence for one technique to diffuse tension: choosing the right fighting words.
Couples who used analytical language, such as "think," "understand," "because," or "reason," during heated arguments were able to keep important stress-related chemicals in check, according to research published in the latest issue of the journal Health Psychology. Cytokines are inflammatory chemicals that spike during periods of prolonged tension and can lower your immunity and lead to early frailty, Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and some cancers. The authors noted a curious gender twist in their results. Husbands benefitted from their wives' measured language, but a man's carefully chosen words had little effect on a woman's cytokine balance.
Researchers measured cytokines before and after discussions with 42 married heterosexual couples. In the first session, couples chatted about a neutral topic. In the second, an interviewer gathered a couple's history and then deliberately provoked a fight by asking them to hash out their hardest issues, saying to a husband and wife something like, "You hate the way her mother always comes over, and you feel like he controls all the money. Discuss," explains Jennifer Graham, lead author and assistant professor of bio-behavioral health at Penn State. Each person had equal time to talk during the recorded 30-minute sessions, and researchers used language software to count how many "cognitive" words each person used. During the first dispassionate discussion, such conflict-resolution-speak had no effect on the participants' cytokines, but in the second, more stressful session, those who used more analytical language showed smaller chemical increases.
The study is significant because it's one of the first to link language with biological markers and show what kinds of words help sparring couples rather than just recommending they "communicate more," explains James Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas-Austin, who has studied the role of language on relationships. Cognitive words are powerful because their use suggests people are working through a problem and trying to acknowledge a partner's perspective. This jibes with the common wisdom given by couples' therapists, who suggest that bickering duos tell each other, "What I understand you're saying is ..."
But why aren't husbands and wives helped equally by measured language? Pennebaker speculates that since participants are listening to each other's stories and trying to come to terms with them, a woman's articulation might help a man see complexities so that he feels less stressed. But since women generally spend more time than men analyzing relationships — and talking to others about them — they may have already sorted through the angles on their own. "He might be at square one, and she's saying, 'Duh! I knew this all along,' " offers Pennebaker. Thus, his cognitive contribution didn't create enough of an emotional response to disrupt her cytokine levels.
It's a disconcerting commentary on men's role in relationship talks, but her chemical nonreaction doesn't necessarily mean she's not taking him seriously. Many women place a high value on such discussions and might be more focused on the fact that one is taking place rather than the particular language used, explains Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown and author of You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. In other words, she cares that he's in the chair tackling their problems; how many conflict-resolution words he uttered during a session wouldn't matter enough to alter her body chemistry.
Tannen says the study's findings are consistent with her research on gender and language. However, it's worth noting that she's wary about drawing too many conclusions about the importance of analytical vocabulary, since those words are used in all kinds of discourse. The study has other obvious limitations. The word counting didn't take into account context or tone, and the computer that kept track wouldn't know if participants had used such language in a not-so-helpful way, saying, for example, "The way I understand it, the reason you're a jerk is because you only think of yourself." Of course, choosing constructive words is no guarantee of actually arriving at a solution. You could say, "I think" or "I understand" all night long and never feel better about your relationship.
The takeaway? The study nicely pokes holes in the stereotype that women are prone to emotional irrationality; the language software counted that women, on average, used more of these cerebral words than men. It's also a reminder of the influence of a woman's words on a man. "Even when it seems like he is ignoring you, your words may be having an effect — at least on a chemical level," says Graham.
Illustration from Clyde Mendes column at MetroSexual LA