- New research adds to the body of evidence showing that relationship quality can affect health.
- The study found that couples who have negative communication styles experience slower wound healing.
- Chronic negative communication patterns were also associated with greater inflammation.
- Experts suggest that it is best to discuss your differences in a positive, non-confrontational way.
- Being aware of the impact of non-verbal communication also helps.
A new study published this month in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology reported that the ways in which couples communicate with each other – for example, if spouses tend to give each other the cold shoulder or avoid talking about their problems – can lead to negative emotions and stressful feelings that then affect immune system function.
Dysfunctional communication patterns also foster ongoing bad feelings about the relationship itself and create chronic inflammation, according to the authors. In fact, the study participants showed up to the lab with elevated inflammation markers already in their blood.
The analysis looks afresh at data from a
The authors note that marriage is known to have protective effects on health, with married couples having lower mortality and morbidity. However, this study shows that this is not automatically the case.
A stressful marriage can also have negative effects on health.
The original research, co-authored by Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, the senior author of the current study, included 42 married heterosexual couples who had been married an average of 12 years.
Their blood was tested for the presence of inflammatory markers at the start of the study, and the researchers used a device to create a small blister on each person’s forearm. The healing of the bladder was used throughout the study to monitor how well the immune system was working.
Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire assessing their typical communication patterns.
The couples were then asked to have two separate discussions about film: one related to social support and the other was an attempt to resolve a known issue within the marriage.
The researchers coded any negative or positive behavior during these discussions. Couples were also asked to rate the conversations themselves.
According to Matthew D. Johnson, PhD, director of clinical training and professor of psychology at Binghamton University, who was not involved in either study, the purpose of the new study was to determine the couples’ level of “demanding/withdrawing communication patterns to investigate. “
“Usually, this is a pattern in which one partner wants to discuss an issue or event in the marriage, and the other partner withdraws from the discussion (for example, by disinterest, upset, or physically leaving the space),” says Johnson. “The withdrawal of one partner may then lead to the ‘demanding’ partner escalating their efforts to discuss the issue by becoming increasingly upset or insistent.”
According to Johnson, couples who had one of these two communication patterns experienced greater inflammation, slower wound healing, higher negative emotion, lower positive emotion and poorer discussion evaluations at the start of the study.
“More interesting,” he noted, “the negative communication patterns that were predictedslower wound healing, lower positive emotions and more negative discussion evaluations.”
According to Johnson, this has “important implications for the direction of causality.”
In other words, it may show that marital communication patterns lead to health problems.
Johnson further noted that this study adds to a growing body of work, including his own, showing the link between relationship quality and health.
“Communication is a key to success,” says Hannah M. Garza, PhD, TCHATT clinical director at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. “Married couples who communicate openly and have the ability to discuss their differences in a positive non-confrontational way tend to have a better long-lasting relationship than those who argue and fight frequently.”
Garza added that communication isn’t just about words either. This can include things like making coffee for your partner, helping with household chores and shopping together. Even little things like texting your husband or wife during the day to say you’re thinking about them “go a long way,” according to Garza.
“By helping, you let your partner know that you care and you’re there to pick up the pieces when they need to be done, or to simply be proud of them when they achieve something big in life,” she explained .
“Go the extra mile for your spouse to make them feel special, in fact, when you see that smile on their face, it will make a difference in your and their emotional states,” she added.