One heavily researched area within psychology is couples’ and marital communication. How a couple chooses to communicate — especially during a conflict — affects all sorts of things in the relationship: stress, relationship health, intimacy, even each person’s health. As Gouin et al. (2009) note in a summary of our existing research on this issue:
Individuals reporting lower marital satisfaction experienced more non-specific physical illness symptoms over a 4-year period than individuals with higher marital satisfaction. Among healthy women, lower marital satisfaction was also associated with a more rapid progression of carotid atherosclerosis. Furthermore, women who were initially dissatisfied in their marital relationship were more likely to develop metabolic syndrome over an 11-year period.
Among women hospitalized for an acute coronary event, those who reported moderate to severe marital strain at baseline were 3 times more likely to experience a recurrent coronary event during a 5-year follow-up, compared to women reporting less marital stress. Poor marital quality was also associated with a lower 3-year survival rate among end-stage renal disease patients, and a lower 8-year survival rate among congestive heart failure patients.
Collectively, these results from prospective observational studies provide evidence of an association between marital stress and negative health outcomes.
The latest research from Graham et al. (2009) shows that couples who are more considerate and rational during a fight release lower amounts of stress-related proteins. This suggests that rational communication between partners can ease the impact of marital conflict on the immune system.
Individuals in a stressful situation — as in a troubled relationship — typically have elevated levels of chemicals known as cytokines. These proteins are produced by cells in the immune system and help the body mount an immune response during infection. However, abnormally high levels of these proteins are linked to illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, arthritis and some cancers.
When people used words in a conflict-resolution discussion with their spouse that were indicative of a rational, calm and thoughtful discussion — words like think, because, reason, why — the researchers found lower amounts of cytokines, the stress-related proteins. The researchers suggest it is because these kinds of words suggest that people are either making sense of the conflict, or at least thinking about it in a deeper, more meaningful manner.
Virtually the same research team led by Gouin et al. (2009) looked at the same set of couples’ attachment style in a separate study. Attachment style refers to Bowlby’s (1982) theory about how babies reacted to their parents in times of stress or danger: “Securely attached children exhibit distress upon separation from their mothers, but are quickly comforted when reunited. In contrast, anxious children exhibit intense distress upon separation, and are not easily soothed following their mother’s return. Avoidant children do not display signs of distress upon separation, and refrain from seeking contact upon reunion with their mothers.” The researchers note how this corresponds to adulthood relationships:
[Other researchers] argued that in adulthood, the attachment bond established between long-term romantic partners is similar to that of the parent–child relationship, albeit both partners serve reciprocally as attachment figures for one another.
Adulthood attachment style is defined along two dimensions. Attachment anxiety reflects fear of the partner’s rejection, separation or abandonment, while attachment avoidance represents difficulties in relying upon and opening up to others, and avoidance of intimacy with and dependency on one’s romantic partner. […]
Anxious individuals worry about being rejected in their close relationships and are overly dependent on others for support and self-esteem. Avoidant individuals become uncomfortable and pull away when their partners get too close and prefer being self-reliant rather than asking others for help.
The researchers found that individuals with higher levels of attachment avoidance — those who pull away when their partners get too close — had larger stress-related proteins to a marital disagreement, compared to less avoidant individuals. These same folks also displayed more negative behaviors and less positive behaviors during the discussion of a marital disagreement. They found no significant relationship between people with attachment anxiety and the stress-related proteins.
The take-aways from these two studies?
Learning conflict-resolution skills will likely benefit your relationship. Being able to calmly and rationally discuss difficult issues in a relationship — money, family, child-rearing — will result in less stress. In addition, being “securely attached” in your relationship, or at least not using an avoidant attachment style, will benefit you as well. People who pull away in relationships are likely to have more of those stress-related proteins, behave more badly, and have less positive behaviors during a disagreement.
Read the full news article: Thoughtful Words Reduce Stress of Marital Conflict
Gouin, J-P., Glaser, R., Loving, T.J., Malarkey, W.B., Stowell, J., Houts, C., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K. (2009). Attachment avoidance predicts inflammatory responses to marital conflict. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 23(7), 898-904.
Graham, J.E., Glaser, R., Loving, T.J., Malarkey, W.B., Stowell, J.R., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K. (2009). Cognitive word use during marital conflict and increases in proinflammatory cytokines. Health Psychology, 28(5), 621-630.