Is Conflict and Criticism from Your Spouse Making Your Pain Worse?

Study of Marital Interaction May Guide New Anti-Criticism Interventions

New research from Rush University, Chicago suggests that spousal criticism or dismissal, either real or perceived, may exacerbate the intensity of chronic low back pain, especially among women and those with depressive symptoms. Further, the association can be self-reinforcing, with spousal hostility provoking increased pain, and expressions of pain leading to increased spousal hostility. Lead author John Burns, PhD, professor, department of behavioral sciences, remarked, “Most studies of spouse and family interactions with people with chronic pain have focused on the positive effects of adequate social support. These (new) findings point to the harmful effects of specific negative spouse communications directed toward pain patients.” The findings could be useful in guiding the development of marital interventions to reduce such hostility. The study was reported online earlier this month in the journal Pain.

In the study, 71 couples were engaged in a 10-minute orientation discussion on whether the spouse with chronic pain could do a task. This conversation, intended to produce some level of conflict, was then followed by the pain sufferer performing the task while the spouse watched and reacted. Researchers monitored both spousal criticism and its effects on the patient in pain intensity, pain behaviors and depressive symptoms. Even among fairly happy couples, Dr. Burns noted, “…spouses uttered enough critical and hostile comments to negatively affect patient pain and function.” Commenting on the work, Annmarie Cano, PhD, director and professor of psychology, Wayne State University, Detroit, said, “It is surprisingly easy to respond to a loved one by dismissing their experience, criticizing them, or reacting with hostility or contempt. But these responses are painful, not only psychologically but physically as well. 

Read a news release about the study conclusions.

The journal abstract may be read here.

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