Love and disparage

Editorial Notebook

May 13, 2006|By PETER JENSEN

More than 71 million Americans suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease. That's just a bit more than the total number of married couples in the United States. What relationship could there possibly be between marriage and cardiac health? Well, if you have to ask that question, you aren't putting two and two together. And while we're on that subject, when will you start balancing the checkbook? Cripes, the way you go through money. But we digress.

A recent study by some researchers at the University of Utah really digs closer to the heart - and the hopelessly clogged arteries - of the matter. For several years, they monitored the conversations of 150 married couples with at least one member between 60 and 70 years old. None of the volunteers had a history of cardiovascular disease. Prior to a session, the couples were asked to pick a difficult topic and discuss it for six minutes. The inflammatory conversation starters included the in-laws, children, finances, vacation plans and household chores. (Cold sweats coming on yet?) And then the video cameras rolled.

Afterward, researchers could study the tape and deconstruct the conversation to find - and let's invent an adequately descriptive word here - telltale signs of jerkism. Two days later, the same participants underwent a CT scan to check for calcification in their coronary arteries.

The results bode ill for the average married person. Women who acted in what researchers deemed a "hostile or unfriendly" way (i.e., "You are the stupidest man alive") or had husbands who behaved in such a manner ("Like you could tell") were more likely to suffer from clogged arteries. Husbands who acted in a "controlling" manner ("What does it take for a guy to get a cold beer around here?") or whose wives were controlling ("Lost your Viagra prescription again, loser?") were also more inclined toward atherosclerosis.

To the layperson, the solution to this health hazard is pretty obvious: Couples should just shut their traps. Well, perhaps an occasional exchange of Hallmark cards would be fine, but no conversation beyond the weather (one assumes the topic of clogged gutters would be strictly off-limits) or to offer compliments of a nonsarcastic nature. But apparently this has been tried in the past without great success.

Even fellow scientists aren't certain what to make of these results. Was it the arguing's direct physiological effects on the body - depression and anger have long been linked to heart disease - or was it how people coped with stress? If that idiot husband of yours sends you straight to your cigarettes and family-size box of bonbons, you might ponder the latter.

Still, this may be construed as potentially good news for those of us who are already pegged as candidates for a heart attack. It deflects attention from smoking cessation, diet and exercise, which, although clearly helpful, are a complete pain. The last thing a person needs is to endure another nonstop harangue from his significant other over his failures in that department. (Aha! Note to self: Bring copy of this article home.)

The study's authors suggest that the best solution would be for couples to be more careful about how they talk to each other, to avoid hostility and controlling behavior. They note that couples who didn't approach each argument as a competition were less likely to suffer problems.

Funny stuff, right? Where do these people live, Salt Lake City? (Um, well, yes, as it turns out.)

But here's an even better, and likely more practical, approach. Invent an argument-resistant cyborg heart and circulatory system that can be surgically installed on one's wedding day.

There are obvious flaws in this approach (wedding planning would still be as lethal as ever), but these shortcomings can eventually be overcome. The point is that married life need never again be heartbreaking if you carry around a tough enough piece of equipment in your chest.

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