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How Arguing Can Affect Your Health

Why Constant Fighting Kills Your Relationships — and Your Health (According to Science)

We want passion in our relationships . . . but how do we know when it crosses the line from hot to unhealthy? Doug Noll at YourTango explains how constant arguing can actually hurt your relationships and health in the long run.

Your relationships aren't the only thing in danger.

If you live a life of arguments, conflicts, and fighting in relationships, your family and at work, you might be slowly killing yourself.

Danish researchers have found that people who fight and argue suffer 10 times more cancer, diabetes and heart disease, and are two to three times more likely to die than those who do not.

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These findings still held when chronic disease, depressive symptoms, age, sex, marital status, support from social relations, and social and economic position were taken into account.

For the study, data was collected on nearly 10,000 men and women, aged 36 to 52, who took part in the Danish Longitudinal Study on Work, Unemployment and Health. Participants were asked about their everyday social relationships, particularly about who, among partners, children, other relatives, friends or neighbors, made excess demands, prompted worries or were a source of conflict, and how often these problems arose.

Using data from the Danish Cause of Death Registry, researchers tracked participants over a 12-year span from 2000 to the end of 2011. The researchers found that stresses related to excess demands, conflicts, and arguing were linked to a 50 to 100 percent increased risk of death from any cause. Among all these stresses, arguing was the most harmful.

Frequent arguments with partners, relatives, friends or neighbors were associated with a doubling to tripling in the risk of death from any cause, compared with those who said these incidents were rare.

This study confirms what we already know from common experience: arguing and fighting is bad for our health. The question remains, what should we do about it, especially about fighting in relationships?

In my work as a peacemaker, mediator and trainer, I've only found one skill that truly works: knowing how to truly listen. True listening means that you have to ignore the words. Instead, you have to listen for the emotions of your storyteller.

When you listen for the emotions, amazing things happen. First, your ego disappears and you're no longer triggered by anything being said to you. Second, you can de-escalate an angry person in 90 seconds or less. Third, you can provide the priceless gift of truly hearing another person.

The challenge is that the skill is counterintuitive. You must ignore the words and listen only for the emotions. You cannot use "I" statements or ask questions.

The old active listening where you repeat back or paraphrase others' words doesn't work to de-escalate anger and strong emotions. As many of us have experienced, that form of active listening is often manipulative and inauthentic.

The listening skills I'm talking about were perfected in the award-winning Prison of Peace project. My colleague Laurel Kaufer and I teach inmates serving life sentences to be powerful peacemakers in their prison communities.

During the first four weeks of training, we do nothing but teach them how to listen to emotions. Using these skills, they have stopped violence and fighting. One of our peacemakers stopped a prison riot dead in its tracks using this skill.

It took us some years to understand exactly how to teach these skills so that prison inmates (men and women, in maximum security prisons) could use them. Now, many inmates come to us to say that if they had learned these skills 20 years ago, they would not be in prison today.

If you focus only on the emotional experience of your storyteller, you will de-escalate strong emotions, such as anger and rage, in 90 seconds or less. This sounds impossible, but as our inmate peacemakers have proven, it's a skill that anyone can master with a little practice.

I'm now teaching the skill to teachers so that they can de-escalate their students quickly and compassionately without losing power or control in the classroom. I'm also teaching it to professional mediators who deal with resolving conflict every day.

Learning how to listen can lengthen your life, reduce your stress, improve your relationships and transform the lives of those you love. Like any serious skill, it takes knowledge and practice, but you can master it in a few hours of instruction.

Give yourself a precious gift of life: Learn how to listen.

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA is an author, speaker, and professional mediator helping people solve difficult problems. Get his latest book: De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less. Email him at doug@dougnoll.com.

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