Unresolved Arguments May Nibble Away at Your Well-Being

Unresolved Arguments May Nibble Away at Your Well-Being

When people resolve interpersonal arguments before winding down their day and going to bed, it can break the vicious cycle of festering negative emotions perpetuating chronic stress.

Along this line, new research from Oregon State University suggests that the daily habit of resolving an argument before day's end can curb the emotional toll of everyday stress triggered by interpersonal conflicts in ways that might have lifelong benefits. 

Over time, the OSU researchers speculate that getting in the habit of resolving arguments by day's end may reduce chronic stress and promote living a longer, healthier life. These findings (Witzel & Stawski, 2021) were recently published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

"Results showed that on the day of an argument or avoided argument, people who felt their encounter was resolved reported roughly half the reactivity of those whose encounters were not resolved," the researchers said in a March 24 news release. "That reduction in stress may have a major impact on overall health."

"Everyone experiences stress in their daily lives. You aren't going to stop things from happening," senior author Robert Stawski noted. "But the extent to which you can tie them off, bring them to an end, and resolve them is definitely going to pay dividends in terms of your well-being. Resolving your arguments is quite important for maintaining well-being in daily life."

"Daily stressors—specifically the minor, small inconveniences that we have throughout the day—even those have lasting impacts on mortality and things like inflammation and cognitive function," first author Dakota Witzel added.

For their recent study, Witzel and Stawski used data from the in the United States (MIDUS 2): Daily Stress Project, 2004-2009.

During the MIDUS 2 project, 2,022 study participants completed an end-of-day Daily Inventory of Stressful Experiences and self-reported their "stressor resolution status" of negative experiences they'd encountered that day. For eight consecutive days, respondents filled out these nightly surveys.

The MIDUS 2 National Study of Daily Experiences assessed "exposure to day-to-day life stressors as well as physical and emotional reactivity to these stressors." One goal of this 2004-2009 longitudinal study was to "investigate how exposure and reactivity to daily stressors correlate with physiological indicators of physical health and predict changes in global health reports."

For their 2021 follow-up study, Witzel and Stawski pinpointed times when MIDUS 2 surveyees self-reported having arguments or "avoided arguments." Then, the researchers took inventory of how these encounters tended to affect someone's mood based on negative affect (NA) and positive affect (PA). Negative and positive affect is used to measure the degree of negative and positive emotions someone experiences on any given day.

Experiencing high NA or low PA after an interpersonal conflict or argument is known as "reactivity." If a person's negative affect is still elevated and their positive affect remains low the day after said argument, the left-over negative affect is called "residue." As the authors explain:

Notably, when study participants did not resolve an argument before the day's end, their residue levels tended to stay high the following day as indicated by a high NA/low PA ratio. On the flip side, "people who felt the matter was resolved showed no prolonged elevation of their negative affect the next day," Witzel and Stawski discovered.

"While people cannot always control what stressors come into their lives—and lack of control is itself a stressor in many cases—they can work on their own emotional response to those stressors," Stawski concluded. "Some people are more reactive than other people. But the extent to which you can tie off the stress so it's not having this gnawing impact at you over the course of the day or a few days will help minimize the potential long-term impact."

The Bottom Line: Unresolved arguments can have a detrimental impact on someone's NA/PA reactivity levels; the residue caused by reactivity can snowball over time. Making an effort to resolve interpersonal conflicts before going to bed can break the cycle of toxic "residue buildup." Conciliatory gestures and the quick resolution of disagreements may facilitate emotional downregulation in ways that reduce chronic stress and improve overall well-being.

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