A 2007 study by researchers at University College in London has found a correlation between negative relationships and coronary heart disease (CHD). "Negative interactions increase the risk of incident CHD," says Psychologist Roberto De Vogli. "The effect is independent of sociodemographic characteristics, biological factors, pychosocial factors and health-related behaviors." De Vogli received his PhD from UCLA, and has worked for an impressive list of institutions, including the World Bank and the World Health Organization. Most of the more than 9,000 civil servants in this study were married, and De Vogli concentrated on the primary relationship in his analysis.
His overall finding may not seem so surprising, considering the large body of literature that shows that good relationships are associated with positive health and well-being, but this time there is an interesting twist. Apparently, the negative effects of negative relationships are stronger than the positive effects of positive relationships.
"The possibility that negative close relationships are more powerful predictors of health than other aspects of social support is consistent with previous research findings indicating that individuals tend to mentally replay negative encounters more than they replay positive ones," says De Vogli. "It is possible that negative aspects of close relationships are more important for the health of individuals because of the power of negative close relationships to activate stronger emotions (worrying and anxiety) and the consequent physiological effects."
Does this mean we should simply avoid those relationships that bring conflict into our lives? Is that where this finding leads?
In the absence of violence, there may be other alternatives. In their May 2007 analysis, "Transformative Process in Marriage," three American researchers note that when psychologists have studied marriage their dominant focus has usually been on conflict. However, this may be changing. "The study of supportive behaviors within marital relationships has been illuminating," say Frank Fincham of Florida State University, Scott Stanley of the University of Denver and Steven Beach of the University of Georgia. "Many researchers and clinicians believe that forgiveness is the cornerstone of a successful marriage, a view that is shared by spouses themselves. Although attempts to integrate forgiveness into broader theories of marriage hardly exist, forgiveness can be seen conceptually as falling on a dimension of positive coping responses, such as social support."
Fincham, Stanley and Beach also point to commitment and sacrifice as two related "self-repair" processes in marriage which scholars have begun to examine. "Those who report more willingness to sacrifice also report greater satisfaction, commitment and relationship persistence," the researchers noted, as they also asked, "Is there an inherent capacity in many relationships for marital self-repair and relationship-generated change, even in the absence of outside intervention? . . . Can naturally occurring marital self-repair processes be harnessed to improve existing treatment gains over time?"
Naturally, even with the benefit of self-repair processes like forgiveness, commitment and sacrifice, it would take two to tango. But couples in high-conflict relationships could do worse than give these principles a shot. One might even say it could be good for the heart.