Communication during Interpersonal Arguing: Implications for Stress Symptoms

Article excerpt


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.


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).


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. …


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