A new study reviews how day-to-day couple conflicts can affect a partner’s physical and mental well-being over the long term.
Prior research on partner conflict has mainly occurred in a laboratory setting with researchers looking at the immediate impact of conflict.
In the new study, the lasting implications of day-to-day couple conflict are discussed in the journal Personal Relationships.
Psychologist Dr. Angela Hicks investigated the physiological and emotional changes taking place in couples the day after conflict occurred, specifically taking into account the differing styles of emotional attachment between participating partners.
“We are interested in understanding links between romantic relationships and long term emotional and physical well-being,” said Hicks. “Our findings provide a powerful demonstration of how daily interpersonal dealings affect mood and physiology across time.”
Hicks followed 39 participants documenting how conflict (assessed with end-of-day diaries) influenced sleep disturbance and next-morning reports of negative affect on mood, and cortisol awakening response (beginning the day in a stressed state).
Prior to testing, the emotional attachment styles of all participants were measured according to how anxious they were in their relationship and to what degree they avoided emotional attachment.
Researchers discovered all participants had problems with sleep after a conflict — supporting the maxim of “don’t go to bed angry.”
Individuals highly anxious in their relationship lost the greatest amount of sleep. The lowest degree of sleep disruption was found amongst individuals who strongly avoided emotional attachment.
Conflict was also found to have repercussions for next-day mood. Individuals more at ease with emotional attachment found their mood was affected more than did individuals less comfortable being intimate with others.
The researchers found no general association between conflict and the next morning cortisol awakening response (a physiological, stress-related preparation for the day ahead).
Their findings showed a particular association only, amongst women who were highly anxious in their relationships, whose cortisol response was significantly dampened on days after conflict.
The results of this study show how routine or ongoing relationship experiences influence emotional and physical health over time.
“We already know from prior research that people in stable, happy marriages experience better overall health than do those in more conflicted relationships,” said Hicks.
“We can now further conclude from our current research that individuals who are in insecure relationships are more vulnerable to longer-term health risks from conflict than are others.”