February 20, 2000
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
When It Pays to Argue With a Spouse
By ERIC NAGOURNEY
There are those who may think it is something out of an Edward
Albee play, or maybe "The Newlywed Game" meets Jerry
Springer. But for the couple tired of flowers, chocolates and
renting Nora Ephron films, it could just be another way to
celebrate their love.
Researchers at Ohio State University are placing volunteer
married couples in a hospital room for two 24-hour sessions,
inflicting small wounds and then encouraging the couple to chat
about anything from in-laws to their sex lives. Then they take
regular samples of blood, saliva and sometimes fluid from the
Though it seems like "get the guests" -- the venomous game in
Albee's "Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" -- taken to new
extremes, serious science is going on. The exercise is one of a
series of studies at the university that are taking a look at how
emotions affect healing, for better or worse. And the results may
help change how surgery patients are treated, among other
The experiment and related research are taken so seriously that
the National Institutes of Health recently gave grants totaling $18
million to studies at Ohio State's Institute for Behavioral
The couple behind the studies, Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a
psychiatrist, and her husband, Dr. Ronald Glaser, an
immunologist, are in the growing field of psychoneuroimmunology, which explores mind-body issues as they relate to health. Already they have found strong evidence that stress can not only make it harder to recover from illness, but also make a person more susceptible to it.
But the thing about the Glasers' experiment that seems to interest
people the most is not the science, but simply how the volunteers
feel. And they seem especially interested in those little wounds
given at the outset of each session, which include blisters
administered on the forearm with a small suction device called a
"It sounds terrible, I know, when you hear about it," said Dr.
Kiecolt-Glaser, who said she and her husband had both been
"chambered" several times. "But it's not. It's like someone gently
pinching your arm."
The arguing is not that bad, either, she said, adding that the goal
was not to provoke 24 hours of disharmony. The couples, who
are paid $1,800 and must consider themselves happily married,
are asked to discuss a contentious issue (identified in earlier
discussions) for only a half hour during the second session.
During the first session, they are asked to talk about more
neutral aspects of their relationship, like how they met (although
this, too, can lead to conflict). Over the next 24 hours,
researchers draw fluids to check for levels of hormones like
cortisol, which indicates stress, as well as healing agents like
leukocytes. Later, they correlate their findings with a videotape
taken of the entire session to see when the stress points were.
In the past, the researchers have studied wound healing in other
people considered to be under stress, among them medical
students and people who care for Alzheimer's patients, and
found that their healing mechanisms were impaired. But in those
cases, they had to settle for people who reported being under
stress. Bound by ethics, the researchers could not design
experiments in which human subjects, unlike animal studies,
were placed under deliberate psychological pressure.
Then some years ago, the Ohio scientists, drawn by the stress
that naturally occurs in relationships and the ability to measure it
physically in a lab setting, thought of using married couples. "We
wanted to take a real-life situation that was filled with a lot of
emotion and a lot of history," said Dr. William B. Malarkey, an
internist who is involved in the studies.
At first, the married couples were not given wounds, but simply
studied to see how their immune and other biological systems
were affected as they argued. The latest experiment is the first in
which the volunteers are given either blisters or small wounds
called punch-biopsies. The researchers hope to study about 100
couples, which could take several years.
Glaser said the findings could help convince hospitals that
reducing stress can improve patient care and even shorten their
stays, which would lower costs. Although much has already
been written about the dangers of stress, he said he wanted to
establish clearly the connection between it and wound healing.
"The medical community is a very conservative community," he
said, "and it takes a while to convince people."