If you’ve ever been in an argument with a romantic partner—and most people have—you’ll be able to identify the many emotions that conflict brings: anger, frustration, sadness, guilt. But can you also recognize how the conflict makes your body feel?
A question that therapists often ask partners in couples therapy is, “Where do you feel that in your body?" This is an especially helpful question for people who struggle with affective language—identifying words to label their emotions. Some people feel distress in their stomachs, or their chests; others may identify feeling choked up, short of breath, or having balled fists. Once we know where, and how, we feel stress, we can convey that to our partner, and work on soothing our emotional reactions in order to bring our better selves to the negotiating table.
But the body’s reaction to how we communicate with our partner doesn’t just happen on a gut level. Conflict also prompts our body to respond hormonally. Specifically, when we experience stress, our body responds with a cascade of physiological reactions resulting in an increase in cortisol, mobilizing us to literally fight or flee.
Cortisol is naturally at its highest within an hour of waking up in the morning, and gradually decreases in the body during the day. However, this diurnal pattern, when chronically disrupted due to stress, can become dysregulated, impacting our other physiological systems, including immune and metabolic functioning.
In other words, the more stress I experience when arguing with my partner, and the more frequently this occurs, the more likely my body is to shift its natural patterns of cortisol, affecting long-term health and longevity outcomes.
But what if my partner’s experiences of stress also affect my body? A new study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology suggests this process is possible. Conducted by Dr. M. Rosie Shrout at The Ohio State University and her colleagues, this study tested cortisol as a prime mechanism for how a couple’s interconnectedness can impact the physical health of each partner.
According to the authors, prior research has already found that more affectionate communication between spouses is associated with steeper cortisol declines during the day, whereas more negative behaviors during conflict are associated with higher levels of cortisol. In addition, having a more responsive spouse, and feeling cared for and understood by them, has been linked to healthier cortisol patterns as many as 10 years later.
However, Shrout and her team explored whether one’s experiences of stress, as well as their partner’s perceptions of stress, both affected an individual’s cortisol levels. They also tested whether these links between stress and cortisol were exacerbated by using more negative behaviors during a disagreement, such as contempt, devaluing a partner, criticism, eye-rolling, and a hostile tone of voice.
Over the course of two days, the 43 couples in this study provided five different saliva samples to measure cortisol, engaged in a 20-minute marital problem discussion that was observed and coded by researchers, and reported on their levels of stress. On average, the couples had been married over 11 years, and most were college-educated and employed full-time.
Importantly, the study’s findings suggest that individuals whose partners were more stressed had cortisol levels that were less likely to decline across the day. Conversely, participants with less stressed partners had healthier cortisol patterns, with steeper declines between morning and night.
Even more interesting? There was a clear trend for a partner’s stress levels to be associated with one’s own levels of cortisol following a conflict discussion. Specifically, for couples who demonstrated more negative, and fewer positive, behaviors during arguments, individuals with more stressed partners had higher average levels of cortisol. In other words, participants whose partners were more stressed experienced higher cortisol—greater physiological stress reactivity—for as long as 4 hours after the couple’s attempts to resolve one of the most contentious areas of their marriage.
These findings suggest it isn’t just how I feel during an argument that matters for my stress, how quickly I can recover, and my long-term health. It may be especially important to consider my spouse’s levels of stress, and how that affects our ability to engage in a meaningful discussion about issues that are particularly challenging, as well as my ability to recover.
This pattern may be uniquely concerning for couples already prone to withdrawing, dismissing, or belittling one another. In these relationships, a combination of negative conflict and partner stress can powerfully get under the skin to promote a physiological reaction capable of influencing disease.
However, what is also important to take away from this project is the apparent benefit that positive conflict behaviors had. Couples in this study who demonstrated more active listening, self-disclosure, humor, and constructive problem-solving did not experience greater levels of cortisol, even in the face of elevated partner stress.
It’s thus possible that this study suggests two mechanisms to interrupt the stress-cortisol pathway: repairing individual distress, so as not to adversely affect a partner; or working to enhance a couple’s communication and connection, to buffer against the impact of outside stressors. Succeeding at either may have important payouts for the health of each partner, as well as the health of the relationship.
Facebook image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock
Shrout, M. R., Renna, M. E., Madison, A. A., Jaremka, L. M., Fagundes, C. P., Malarkey, W. V., & Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2020). Cortisol slopes and conflict: A spouse's perceived stress matters. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 121, 104839. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2020.104839