Whether we feel supported in our partnerships, and whether there is a lot of conflict in our relationships, can be powerful predictors of our health, especially for women.
Those in relatively content partnerships are simply healthier and happier than those in relationships where fighting and tension are common. Why? Our bodies are powerful conduits of emotions. And as we have evolved together, we have learned to be very sensitive to the emotional states of those we are close to.
Now a new study expands on this exciting, though disquieting, research. Holly Laws and her colleagues looked at the way cortisol patterns converge in the early years of marriage, and the evidence suggests that as much as we might try to manage our own emotions, the people we decide to spend the majority of our time with can influence us a great deal, at least in terms of this potentially problematic stress hormone.
In general, too much cortisol is considered unhealthy. In response to stress, corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF), through a complex network, controls the release of cortisol, which then acts on the immune system (e.g., Smith & Vale, 2006). In other words, it’s best to manage stress to decrease the impact of our cortisol levels. But as anyone with a partner knows, we often are impacted by the stress of those we love. And it seems to be the case that some of us match up quite well with the stress levels of our partners. It’s a kind of attunement that has both positive and negative qualities.
The findings of Laws and her colleagues suggest that the more time spouses spend with each other, the more connected they become, in a specific biological way: The longer couples were together, the more similar their cortisol responses become. This makes sense from a biological perspective, in that we attune to those who are closest to us. But Laws and her colleagues found a potential downside to this kind of connection—cortisol attunement during conflict discussions among married partners was associated with decreased marital satisfaction, which is disappointing by itself, but also potentially connected to poor health.
When I asked Laws about her findings, she replied:
"Several researchers have found evidence that partners 'co-regulate' their stress. This means that the ups and downs of their cortisol levels (one indicator of physiological stress response) throughout the day show correspondence: If one partner's level is higher than usual, their partner's level is also more likely to be higher than usual. What our study showed was that the degree of correspondence in partners' cortisol patterns appeared to increase in early marriage. Newlywed couples showed greater correspondence in their cortisol patterns in response to stress in their second year of marriage than in their first year of marriage. Our findings suggested that spouses' physiological stress responses, as indexed by cortisol, become increasingly similar as their relationship matures. The mechanisms for this phenomenon are not well understood. It is possible that spouses show this increasing correspondence because of shared experiences they have together, and it is possible that there is a process of mutual influence within the relationship that results in cortisol patterns that are more similar as time goes by."
One question arising from this research is: How can we protect ourselves from the stressful emotions of our partners?
When we love someone, we tend to be very attuned to the emotions of that person, as he or she is the individual with whom we have the most contact. Many women I see in therapy who report conflicted romantic relationships tend to have trouble setting boundaries with partners. And this is one way therapy can help. People can learn how not to take their partner’s stress personally, which is a common temptation. Additionally, it can feel selfish to separate from the emotions of others and to focus on one’s own emotions. But learning how to separate from the stress of those we love has positive emotional, and likely physical, benefits.
We can learn to love without absorbing the stress of those we care about.