From the Annals of Medical Family Therapy: How You Argue Can be Bad for Your Health

September 15, 2016

The connection between emotions and health has long been a subject of interest in the field of psychotherapy. The connection between psyche and soma has occupied some of the greatest thinkers and contributors to the field with very little fruitful explanation or positive outcome for patients. Only recently with the application of the family systems model, which has expanded the field of observation to include the patient’s social context, (in other words his/her significant relationships,) have we begun to understand this connection in a meaningful way. For example, in a study done in the 1980’s at the University of California Berkeley, and recently reanalyzed ( New York Times Magazine, June 6, 2016, p.26), it was found that the way in which couples argue has a direct impact on their health. Researchers were able to show through analysis of videos of couples rehashing a recent argument that there were strong correlations between emotional styles of arguing and specific health related problems. For example, husbands who were seething with anger were much more likely to report symptoms of cardiac problems, like chest pain or high blood pressure, than calmer spouses. Those who stonewalled or denied were more likely to report muscular aches and pains, like lower back pain or neck pain. And the study showed these responses were highly specific to the subjects emotional style. While this study does not provide conclusive evidence that emotions directly cause health problems, we do know that people in unhappy marriages are often less healthy, and it provides intriguing data that gets us a little closer to understanding the nexus between health, emotions and relationships.

Studies like the one cited above are part of the growing field of Medical Family Therapy. They provide empirical support for the idea that there is an important role for family therapists as part of the health care team in working with patients and their families coping with chronic illnesses. Students interested in developing their clinical skills in Medical Family Therapy can learn more about this Medical Family Therapy Certificate Program by visiting Thomas Jefferson University’s website.

This program is offered in partnership between Thomas Jefferson University and Council for Relationships.

Kenneth W. Covelman, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Couple and Family Therapy
Director of Joint MFT Program, Council for Relationships and Thomas Jefferson University
Staff Therapist, University City Office

Learn more about Ken Covelman here.