That recurring disagreement you’ve been having with your spouse, child or significant other just might be making you sick. So says Rachel Reznik, an assistant professor of communication at Elmhurst who has been studying the health effects of what researchers call serial arguing.
“Ongoing arguments can have a serious impact on an individual’s mental and physical health,” Reznik said by phone from Oxford, England, where she was spending Fall Term as a visiting academic researcher at the University of Oxford’s Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. “The way people talk to one another during an argument can affect not just the relationship, but an individual’s well-being.”
Conflict is a universal fact of human relationships, and most conflicts defy quick resolution. When individuals argue about the same issue repeatedly over time, social scientists say they’re participating in serial arguing. One recent study of 280 individuals, co-authored with Associate Professor of Communication Courtney Waite Miller and Northwestern’s Michael Rolloff, produced results that Reznik called surprising. The researchers found that while constructive and positive attempts to resolve arguments may be beneficial for relationships, they correlate to increased stress and health problems.
It’s no surprise that hostile and verbally abusive arguing would contribute to stress and ill health. (To say nothing of the damage they would do to a relationship.) More passive approaches, like withdrawing and refusing to engage in an argument, have proved to correlate to health problems, too. But Reznik confesses that she was not expecting to find a correlation between positive problem solving and poor health.
“It might seem like common sense that if you’re mean in an argument, you’ll get sick. But we were surprised to find that people reporting the more positive kind of problem solving were getting sick too,” she said. “It’s the actual problem-solving process that seems to be stressful. It takes the most effort and produces the most stress.”
So if nastiness is counterproductive, and even constructive problem solving can threaten your health, what’s an arguer to do?
“We find that listening worked best,” Renzik said. “It was the most beneficial” and correlated with the fewest ill effects.
With Miller and Assistant Professor of Psychology Catherine Gaze, Reznik has also studied arguing between parents and their young-adult children. Their research indicates that patterns in which one partner nags and criticizes while the other avoids the issue or tries to change the subject (what communication experts call a demand/withdraw pattern) can cause health problems severe enough to disrupt daily school and work activities. Reznik said the individuals’ health was threatened no matter which partner was doing the demanding and which the withdrawing.
While at Oxford this fall, in addition to continuing her work on serial arguing, Reznik served as an inaugural member of the university’s Health Experiences Institute (HEXI) education group, an interdisciplinary research institute that aims to transform health policy, practice and education. Among other activities, Reznik studied and presented findings on the ways medical-school professors and other health-care educators use patient narratives in their teaching.
Reznik said that her Elmhurst students benefit from her research and her work with scholars around the world. When she returns to the classroom in the spring, she will incorporate what she has learned into her lectures and class discussions.
“I cite my findings to students when we talk about conflict in interpersonal communication, and I can tell them our research is being published in peer-reviewed journals,” Reznik said. “Students learn that what we do is more than just common sense. It’s discovering things that are sometimes contrary to people’s beliefs, but always backed up with data.”