The couples who live the longest

He expresses his negative feelings, but she doesn’t. Really.

An Italian husband from Parma filed a lawsuit in the spring against his wife for almost $300,000, saying that her incessant nagging has rendered him impotent. “All she ever does is complain,” he said. “It is extremely stressful and it has left me unable to be a man. I want some compensation.”

A husband wishing his wife wouldn’t harp on him so much? Sounds like a hackneyed gender stereotype (even if the litigation part takes it to a new level). Kind of like the one about the wife who longs for her husband to open up about his feelings more. But a recent study in the Journal of Family Communication that examined how married people cope with anger—and its impact on their mortality—suggests that these frustrated spouses may be onto something profound. The couples who lived the longest were the ones in which the husband expressed his negative emotions while the wife suppressed hers. (As opposed to spouses who both expressed their anger, or both suppressed it.) “You figure that out,” says Ernest Harburg, the lead researcher and a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, acknowledging the bewildering finding.

What’s so fascinating about the result is that it goes against the hallmark of marital advice: everyone should communicate constantly. There is growing evidence that too much talk can be bad. “Niagara Falls verbiage descending on a person causes them to shut their ears,” says Harburg, offering one explanation. “It doesn’t help communication to overtalk.” Last year, the book How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It was bestowed the ultimate credibility booster: a 1,500-word feature in O magazine. Co-author Steven Stosny said that despite women’s innate tendency to express their anxiety, when it comes to talking, “the truth is, more often than not, it makes things worse.”

If you don’t accept that females do most of the complaining, consider a 2002 study in the Journal of Pragmatics, which found that two-thirds of the nagging that occurs within a family is carried out by women. Of 70 examples of it, 43 per cent were about chores and errands while 26 per cent were about failing to do something or not completing a task. (Of course, this may be because women do a lot more of the housework than men, stats show.) The few complaints that came from males had nothing to do with domesticity—one husband, for example, nagged his wife not to slam the car door. “We do know that women tend to express emotions more than men,” says Ted Robles, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “That can play out in the demand-withdraw pattern.”

It’s also known as the flight or fight response, and every relationship expert brings it up when talking about spousal communication. You know the model: wife expresses concern, husband ignores wife, wife feels dismissed and reiterates concern, husband feels threatened and further retreats, and on it goes until there’s an explosive encounter. This pattern predicts a decline in marital satisfaction, says Robles, and women in these situations show higher levels of stress hormones than men. “So when a husband doesn’t participate in arguments, it is damaging for a woman’s health,” he explains.

Stonewalling husbands come into psychologist Barry Rich’s counselling office in Richmond Hill, Ont., regularly. “The men I’ve met don’t want to come to therapy,” he says. “They’re not as expressive as their wives. They think it’s a girlie thing to do.” The danger of not talking about negative feelings over a long period of time can be summed up in one ugly word: resentment. Not only does it fuel bad vibes between spouses, it harms their well-being. “Resentment is a condition we can [see] disturbs bodily systems,” says Harburg. “Blood pressure may rise, ulcers may occur [as well as] respiratory issues.”

Given all this, the most apt marriage advice may be that where there’s a stonewaller and a nagger the best solution is for both partners to adopt some of the behaviour that’s driving them nuts. A meet-in-the-middle approach. “Couples that are mismatched in the sense that one is expressive and one is suppressive may be relatively satisfied,” says Robles, because they complement each other. That’s the ideal scenario, anyway. First spouses need to recognize their contribution to their conflicts. And then what—how does a wife or husband recover? That happens when a person feels vindicated, usually “through an apology,” Harburg says.

Otherwise, couples may be better off apart. A recent study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine concluded that spouses with low marital satisfaction were less healthy than single people. The consequences of staying unhappily married have never been so dire. Just ask the man from Parma. Or better yet, his wife.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.