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Conflict in marriage can damage a person’s mental and physical health, according to research conducted by Brett Strouse ’05 (West Chester, Pa.) this summer.

Under the guidance of Jamila Bookwala, assistant professor of psychology, Strouse researched three sources of social strain and support for an individual — the spouse, non-spouse family, and friends — to determine the effects of each group on the adult.

“We have found that the spouse does indeed play a unique role in determining an older person’s mental and physical health when compared to the role of the non-spouse family and the role of friends,” say Strouse, a double major in psychology and economics & business.

He wrote the first drafts of a paper that he and Bookwala are preparing for submission to a scientific journal. They worked together through Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, in which students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Bookwala’s previous research showed that spouses are “uniquely related to [a person’s health] over and above what you find in other social relationships,” she explains.

Strouse says they found that increased health problems and poor mental health resulted from negative social exchanges and that the relationship between spouses also caused changes in mental and physical health.

In fact, the rate is higher among spouses than what one would expect, Bookwala says.

Information came from a nationally representative database that incorporated data from 729 adults between the ages of 50 to 74. Participants were in their first marriage for an average of 38 years. Strouse and Bookwala used marital relationship, communication, positive and negative spousal support, and disagreement levels to decipher the effects of the spouse on personal health. They also looked at studies that identified the well being of the spouses.

“Previous research has shown that positive and negative social exchanges do play a role in mental health and physical health,” Strouse says. “There is also evidence that negative social exchanges play a stronger role than positive exchanges in mental health and physical health, although the role of negative exchanges in physical health is largely unexplored.”

Since she presented it this summer at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Honolulu, Bookwala’s research on the health effects of marital conflict has been covered by ABC News Radio affiliates and other radio stations, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Chicago Sun-Times, and many other newspapers in the United States and abroad.

Bookwala says that Strouse’s dedication produced positive results, and their working relationship is strong.

“We really collaborated with one another,” she says. “It was marvelous. I was utterly and completely impressed by his performance.”

Strouse returns the positive feelings.

“I was incredibly impressed with her knowledge of the subject matter,” he says. “I also appreciated the fact that she allowed me to explore this topic in my own way rather than choosing for me how we approached the research.”

“I hope that we are able to promote a love of learning that is different from what you get in the classroom,” Bookwala says. “Lafayette is totally unparalleled in terms of the research it offers students.”

Strouse praises Lafayette’s hands-on approach to learning and says his professors have helped develop his educational experience.

“I firmly believe that the real key to the success of projects like [this] is an exchange of ideas between the student and professor that is on an equal playing field,” Strouse says. “That is, the student and professor can interact as equals, allowing the project to succeed and allowing the student to learn vast amounts of information from the professor.”

Strouse hosts a show on Lafayette’s radio station and is a member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. He also plays bass guitar and has formed a band.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News