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Partner Conflict Matters to Women’s Emotional Health

Left unchecked, relationship conflicts can be a source of angst and pain.

Relationship conflicts. Left unchecked, they can be a festering source of angst and pain. Dealt with appropriately and head-on, they can be a source of growth and liberation.

There is one thing we would all agree with. Relationship conflict is never pleasant when we’re in its midst.

Conflict: More Common Than You Think

A recent study (2015) followed almost 3,000 Australian women for 21 years, starting with their pregnancy. It measured women’s depression symptoms when they were pregnant, 6 months after they had their babies, and then again when their child was 5, 14, and 21 years of age.

The scientists designed this study to understand what placed women at higher risk for long-term emotional health problems after childbirth.

It looked at many, many possible aspects of a woman’s life that might affect her risk, including age, education, and financial status, factors related to her pregnancy, and also psychological factors, including partner conflict and how supported she felt.

Among the women who had symptoms of depression at some point during those 21 years (21 percent), 56.7 percent indicated at the first pregnancy visit that they had a conflict in their partner relationship. That is, they felt that they and their partners frequently:

  • Quarreled
  • Got on each other’s nerves
  • Rarely confided in each other
  • Rarely laughed together
  • Frequently disagreed on a range of matters: finances, religion, recreation, friends, sex, philosophy of life, ways of dealing with parents or in-laws, aims/goals/things believed important, major decisions, household tasks, careers, and how and when to spend time together.

In other words, it wasn’t just major, blow-out arguments that affected women. It was the daily tensions. It was the lack of closeness and confiding in one another.

Source: James Qualtrough/Unsplash
Source: James Qualtrough/Unsplash

Partner Conflict Matters to Women’s Emotional Health

We know that having an unresolved argument with our partner can absolutely wreck our day. It affects everything. After a recent conflict with my spouse, I remember thinking that I can handle just about any form of stress but relationship conflict. It has a particularly distressing quality about it.

In the Australian study, the women who reported the most conflict in their relationship with their partner during pregnancy were over four times more likely to experience depression in the 21 years following their child’s birth than women who had no relational conflict.

It didn’t just affect their day. It affected their lives.

And it wasn’t just women with the highest amount of conflict who were affected.

Those who said they had moderate levels of conflict had twice the chance of experiencing depression over the next 21 years than conflict-free women. That is still a substantial risk.

Jose Escobar/Unsplash
Source: Jose Escobar/Unsplash

Conflict Compared to Other Life Factors

There were other life factors that placed women at risk for depression in the 21 years after they had their baby. Women who hadn’t completed high school, who had lower incomes when their baby was born, who had stress or anxiety in pregnancy, who had pregnancy complications, and who had fewer friends and less friend contact were more likely to experience depression, too.

But having a lot of partner conflict was by far the biggest risk factor for women’s depression in that 21-year stretch.

That is very telling. Relationship conflict matters for women’s long-term emotional health.

Dr Dawn Kingston/Unsplash
Source: Dr. Dawn Kingston/Unsplash

Winters Come and Go: Sage Advice

Last week, over dinner with a colleague, she mentioned a piece of advice that she heard from an elderly friend. Her friend said that we’ll see many winters come and go in our marriages, but that by the time you are her age, you stop worrying about the winters.

I love this advice. Let’s not pathologize conflict. It comes and goes as a normal part of relationships. Let’s learn that lesson before we become elderly!

But let’s not ignore the effects of long-standing relationship conflict. While I’ll come back to this in future blogs, most of the time, relationship conflict is more about who I am—how I see myself, how I feel threatened or betrayed, or how I feel unappreciated—than the other person.


Kingsbury et al. (2015). Trajectories and predictors of women’s depression following the birth of an infant to 21 years: A longitudinal study. Maternal and Child Health, 19, p. 877-888.