A Partner’s Stress Gets Under Your Skin

September 17, 2020

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

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