Can Fighting with Your Partner Change Your Biology?

The way you communicate with your partner could impact how your body functions.

Originally published on my Psychology Today Blog, Mindful Relationships

Key Points:

  • Fighting with a partner in negative, aggressive ways can increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which may damage the body’s stress system over the long-term.
  • Practicing positive communication behaviors (like physical affection, humor, and expressions of support) can mitigate the effects of conflict on the body.
  • Men’s use of these behaviors, in particular, can have a positive effect on both them and their partner.

When you’re in a tiff with your partner, you probably aren’t thinking about how you’re changing the concentration of your body’s hormones for years to come. Recent evidence suggests that the way you fight with your partner could potentially do just that: create long-lasting changes to your biology.

How Chronic Stress Leads to Physical Problems

You may have heard about cortisol, the stress hormone released from our bodies when our “fight or flight” response is activated. One interesting thing about cortisol is that it’s not only released when we’re under threat. Cortisol is actually released every day, throughout the day, according to a biological rhythm. When our physiological stress systems are healthy, we release more cortisol in the morning (think of a “get up and go” response) and it tapers off throughout the day until its lowest level at night (allowing us to snooze when it’s appropriate to).

But, when we’re chronically stressed, we might not have the same “get up and go” cortisol response. And our cortisol levels might stay high even into the night, keeping us wired even when we don’t want to be. (Ever been lying in bed at night, just waiting for sleep to come?) These cortisol patterns are an indicator of how well our stress systems are functioning day-to-day.

How Couples Can Help Each Other Manage Stress

The way you communicate with your partner could also be a culprit. In a 2019 study conducted by my colleagues and I, published in Family Relations, 62 couples provided saliva samples throughout two days to study their cortisol rhythms. They also came into the lab and completed an interesting task: they talked about their biggest relationship issues in front of a camera.

Analyses of our data suggested that when men used more positive communication behaviors (think physical affection, humor, and support) and less negative communication behaviors (think defensiveness, withdrawal, and physical aggression), both they and their partners displayed healthier cortisol patterns. In contrast, less positivity in relation to negativity was associated with rhythms of cortisol release that suggested a malfunctioning stress system.

Given that the functioning of our biological stress systems has big implications for our overall health, it could be that the way you communicate with your partner (especially you, guys!) is messing with your stress system and thus making you sick. Couples therapy and marriage counseling may benefit your health. Work on your communication with your partner and you’ll stay healthier, longer.

To read the post on Psychology Today, click here.