COMMUNICATION DURING INTERPERSONAL ARGUING: IMPLICATIONS FOR STRESS SYMPTOMS
Arguing is a common phenomenon in interpersonal relationships (Argyle & Furnham, 1983) and verbal disagreements are more likely to occur in intimate than in nonintimate relationships (Roloff & Soule, 2002). In addition to arguments being commonplace, many individuals characterize their disagreements as negative experiences (e.g., McCorkle & Mills, 1992). Indeed, ongoing arguments can be viewed as chronic stressors (Malis & Roloff, 2006b). Segerstrom and Miller (2004) argue that duration, frequency, and resolvability are three defining features of chronic stressors and similar features of ongoing arguments are linked to stress. For example, argument frequency is positively related to individuals experiencing hyperarousal, interference with their daily life activities due to emotional problems, and physical pain (Roloff & Reznik, 2008). Believing that an ongoing argument will be resolved is negatively related to stress, hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, and trying to avoid thinking about the episodes (Malis & Roloff, 2006a). We think that other components of arguments such as the type of communication enacted during argumentative episodes contribute to arguing being a stressor. To investigate the role that communication during arguments plays on stress and subsequent health problems, we conducted a study that tests the relation between three general conflict acts (distributive communication, avoidant communication, and integrative communication), stress, and well-being. We begin by noting the relationship between stress and health and then hypothesize how communication during arguments might stimulate stress and health problems.
STRESS AND HEALTH PROBLEMS
As a result of experiencing a traumatic event, individuals often become stressed. Although the stress diminishes in intensity over time, individuals may experience stress long after the initiating event occurred (Sundin & Horowitz, 2002). Feeling stressed can manifest in three psychological symptoms (Weiss & Marmar, 1997). Stress can be manifested in avoidance during which individuals try to avoid thinking or talking about the event as well as trying to avoid residual feelings from the event. Thought suppression has been shown to have measurable effects on individuals' immune systems (Petrie, Booth, & Pennebaker, 1998) and can result in intrusive thoughts (Lane & Wegner, 1995). Intrusive thoughts involve recurring memories, visions, feelings, and dreams about a traumatic event (Weiss & Marmar). Finally, individuals might feel hyperarousal that is characterized by irritability, hyper-vigilance to physical states, outbursts of anger, and trouble concentrating (Weiss & Marmar). Stress prompts a variety of physiological reactions that can lead to serious illness (Vanltallie, 2002). Indeed, there is evidence that stress symptoms mediate the relationship between experiencing trauma and health problems with hyperarousal being the strongest mediator (Kimerling, Clum, & Wolfe, 2000). Although stress reactions are most serious in violent situations (Sundin & Horowitz), they also are reported after episodes of serial arguing (Malis & Roloff, 2006a; 2006b) and are positively correlated with experiencing sleep problems, physical health problems, and pain (Roloff & Reznik, 2008). Furthermore, stress is associated with physical illness (Lawler et al., 2003). Stressors have a negative impact on individuals' immune systems (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004). Interpersonal stress is also linked with higher blood pressure and increased heart rate (Powch & Houston, 1996).
ARGUING, STRESS, AND HEALTH PROBLEMS
Our framework for understanding the relationships among reoccurring arguments, stress, and health is an extension of an analysis provided by Vuchinich and Teachman (1993). Working from a utility theory frame, they argue that conflict engagement is a function of the benefits and costs associated with conflict. The benefits arise from the projected outcomes of resolving the dispute in one's favor, whereas the costs arise from the process of engaging in conflict. As an argument continues, the costs increase as individuals sacrifice or redirect resources, but the perceived benefits from the outcomes remain stable. Hence, conflict will continue as long as participants can afford to expend resources in pursuit of projected benefits.
In an interpersonal disagreement, individuals expend resources during their encounters. They often try to express their positions in a clear and convincing manner while responding to the positions presented by their partners. They sometimes must deal with their partner's challenges to their positions and themselves. And of course, they try to develop solutions to resolve the issues. All of this resource expenditure may tax both cognitive and affective resources. Hence, disagreements can be exhausting and stressful. And when engaged in ongoing arguing, the loss of resources and the level of stress can grow. Vuchinich and Teachman (1993) found that family conflicts, relative to strikes or wars, end quickly because individuals have more difficulty sustaining the personal loss of resources. Thus, the stress levels resulting from sustained interpersonal arguing might be considerable as resources become depleted. When deciding whether to continue an ongoing argument, individuals might take into consideration the health costs associated with continuing the argument and compare them with the benefits arising from eventually resolving the dispute. In some cases, individuals could conclude that the personal costs of continued arguing are so high that disengagement or capitulation is preferable even if there is no resolution.
As noted earlier, features of reoccurring arguments are correlated with stress symptoms and health problems. However, we also believe that these problems will be related to the actions that individuals perform during an argumentative episode. We will focus on three commonly occurring categories of conflict actions: distributive acts, avoidance acts, and integrative acts (Sillars, Pike, Jones, & Redmon, 1983). Distributive acts are competitive and often involve verbal attacks, hostility, and pressure (Sillars et al.). Avoidance acts minimize the level of disagreement by being indirect or passive (Sillars et al.). Finally, integrative acts are disclosive and reflect problem-solving skills (Sillars et al.).
Distributive communication can be detrimental to one's health and stress level. Distributive communication requires a great deal of resource expenditure due to the attack-and-defend cycles that often are enacted. Indeed, having a dominating, or competing conflict style is positively related to stress because of its tendency to stimulate relational conflict (Friedman, Tidd, Currall, & Tsai, 2000). Moreover, the negative effects of distributive communication might result from the expression of negative affect that often accompanies it. The intensity of negative affect expressed during conflict is related to individuals' experiencing increased blood pressure and decreased immune functioning (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1993). Not surprisingly, research has shown that mutual hostile communication during arguments is positively related to stress symptoms and stress-related health problems (Roloff & Reznik, 2008). Specifically, the more individuals engaged in mutual negative communication in the form of yelling, threatening, name calling, swearing, or verbally attacking each other during their argumentative episodes, the more likely they were to report that they experience a hyperaroused state, increased stress levels, problems sleeping, high anxiety, physical health problems, and physical pain. They also reported trying to avoid thoughts about the encounter and cutting down on daily activities due to emotional problems (Roloff & Reznik).
The aforementioned implies that individuals who engage in distributive actions might experience stress symptoms after an episode and could become ill. Because of the negativity involved in these exchanges, we anticipate that individuals who have used distributive communication will suffer from intrusive thoughts about what was said and will attempt to avoid recalling the actions and feelings that occurred during the episode. In effect, they will replay hurtful statements that they experienced as unpleasant and consequently they will try to avoid doing so. In addition, the high degree of arousal they felt during the argument could carry over into residual arousal and they will report being hyperaroused. Based on prior research, these three stress reactions should increase the likelihood of experiencing health problems. Hence, we predict the following:
H1: Self-reported use of distributive actions will be positively related to experiencing post-episodic intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal and these three stress symptoms will mediate the relationship between distributive actions and reported health problems.
Some individuals try to avoid engaging in an argument and this can lead to negative outcomes such as relational dissatisfaction (Caughlin & Afifi, 2004). When trying to avoid an argument, individuals might withhold complaints, be nonresponsive to a partner's complaints, or try to minimize the disagreement. Although possibly successful at preventing a prolonged argument or escalation, avoidance strategies can require considerable resources to enact and might be stressful. For example, Gelles and Straus (1988) observed that abused wives often engaged in avoidance, which produced stress and exhaustion as they anticipated dangerous topics, shifted the focus, and generally tried to keep things calm. Furthermore, individuals with an avoidant style often reported greater levels of stress resulting from the greater incidence of task and relational disagreements they experience (Friedman et al., 2000). Avoidance could lead to health problems. Individuals who take an avoider role during disagreements with their spouses often have increased systolic blood pressure reactivity, which is associated with heart disease (Denton, Burleson, Hobbs, Von Stein, & Rodriguez, 2001).
The goal of avoidance seems to be preventing an argument from continuing or escalating (Roloff & Ifert, 2000). The avoidant individual might be nonresponsive and try to avoid thinking about what is being said. Hence, avoidance during the episode should be positively related to trying to avoid replaying the episode later. Because avoiders might try to prevent an argument episode from reoccurring, they might experience ongoing physiological arousal and hence, avoidance should be positively related to hyperarousal. These symptoms could increase their susceptibility to health problems. We predict the following:
H2: Self-reported use of avoidance actions will be positively related to experiencing post-episodic avoidance and hyperarousal and these two stress symptoms will mediate the relationship between avoidance actions and health problems.
Research suggests that using integrative behaviors during an argument might actually result in health gains. When being integrative, individuals share …