According to George Bernard Shaw, “The test of a man or woman’s breeding is how they behave in a quarrel.”
Scientists and psychologists have long understood that anger is a powerful motivator of human behavior.
It takes a long-married couple several decades to realize that body language can be just as effective and a lot less stressful than volume. It isn’t that we don’t get angry; it just seems like a colossal waste of time and energy. We’ve learned that any annoying habits (and we both admit that we have them) that you haven’t been able to nag out of your spouse by the time he is a senior citizen should be considered permanent flaws.
A large state university’s research team once paid healthy couples, married at least three years, $1800 for two 26-hour stays to study the relationship between mind and body, stress, and disease.
Researchers used tiny suction cups to form eight small, painful blisters on participants’ arms. Fluid was removed from the blisters and then the blisters’ tops were removed with scissors. Then the couples were encouraged to argue with each other, as researchers tested how stress hormones affected the healing of their wounds.
Married subjects over the age of 70 were not permitted to participate, probably because it is harder to work up a good argument between two people who have been together for decades. By now, we seniors know each other so well that we can conduct an argument, from opening volley to final rejoinder, without saying a single word.
Here is an example of a silent, but effective, argument between two long-married seniors:
The wife stomps into the living room, pausing in front of his recliner, her arms folded across her chest, eyes fixed in an icy stare.
He cocks his eyebrow in puzzlement.
Her brow furrows and her eyes narrow to angry slits.
He rolls his eyes.
She puts her hands on her hips.
He sighs deeply.
She thumps out of the room, slamming the door behind her.
To the casual observer, it may appear that no argument has taken place. As a long-married senior, allow me to translate that non-verbal exchange.
She: “You cheapskate! I swear, you could squeeze a nickel until the buffalo poops.”
He: “I don’t think there are buffalo on the nickels anymore. What did I do now?”
She: “Did you turn the furnace way down again? It’s freezing in here!”
HE: “Do you know what our electric bill was last month?”
She: “If you do that one more time, I swear I’ll turn the thermostat up to 80 degrees and open every door and window in the house and heat the whole damn neighborhood!”
He: “All right, all right!”
She (mumbling to herself): “Nothing’s going to change. He’s going to do the same damn thing tomorrow.”
Although no verbal volley has taken place, the five stages of an argument (accusation, explanation, irritation, exasperation,resignation) have been successfully completed.
After 50 years of marriage, I’ve accepted that, but I’m still fascinated with that university’s research experiment. I’ve decided to try it at home. I don’t have to tiny suction cups, but I do have a bathroom plunger, which should work just as well if I wet it down first. I’ll have to wait until he’s asleep. I should be able to achieve one huge blister on his belly before he wakes up. Let the nagging begin!