- A study has found that unkind exchanges between couples are related to greater emotional suffering, unhealthy habits, and higher BMI.
- Emotional suffering and a higher BMI are also linked to challenges with health and everyday tasks seven years later.
- The study's findings are also consistent with couples who only fight occasionally.
When you read the words “couples therapy,” what comes to mind? Presumably, your answer will depend on experiences such as what you’ve heard about couples therapy, relationships you’ve witnessed, or your own first-hand encounters with it. Still, of the ideas that just floated through your head, was your physical welfare one of them? It’s certainly possible that this came up for you, but it probably didn’t. After all, what would couples therapy have to do with a person’s bodily health? In “Myths About Couples Therapy,” we talked about how, although it’s possible that a relationship may not get better, couples therapy can make a meaningful difference in improving the bond between partners. And here’s where the link between couples therapy and physical wellness comes in.
A recent study on couple communication
In a study that came out last month, a team of researchers examined how unfriendly communication between partners (e.g., got mad, blamed) was related to feeling emotionally upset, engaging in unhealthy lifestyle practices (e.g., smoking), having health conditions (e.g., high blood pressure), and experiencing difficulty with everyday tasks (e.g., getting dressed).
More specifically, they considered the degree of antagonistic communication in couples over the course of four years. At the very end of those four years, they also looked at how emotionally distraught partners were feeling, their lifestyle practices, and their body mass index (BMI). Then they assessed whether partners had any health conditions or difficulty performing their regular routines seven years later.
Overall, the investigators found that the degree of combative and unkind exchanges between partners over the course of four years was related to greater emotional suffering, more unhealthy lifestyle practices, and a higher BMI at the end of that time period. In turn, they found that emotional suffering and a higher BMI were linked to struggling with health conditions and experiencing challenges with everyday tasks seven years later. And remarkably, as the researchers pointed out, we’re not talking about couples who were locked in constant clashes. Even though the couples in this study indicated that their acrimonious exchanges happened on occasion, there was still a connection with reduced physical well-being.
Implications for argumentative couples
Now it should be pointed out (and the investigators rightly did so), that the couples in this study were all White, opposite-sex couples, which makes it hard to say whether the results apply to couples in general. It will be extremely important to repeat this study with couples who represent the United States population and to extend this research to couples in various countries.
Having said that, these findings are still worth paying attention to, especially in case they do apply to couples by and large. They imply that the moments between partners and how they handle conflict can make a difference for their health over time. So if you and your partner are being argumentative with each other and aren’t getting along as well as you would like, and you're not seeing the dynamic shifting between you, consider reaching out to a couples therapist. Not only could it make your relationship stronger, it just might keep you and your partner healthier too.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Lee, S., Wickrama, K. K. A. S., Futris, T. G., Simmons, L. A., Mancini, J. A., & Lorenz, F. O. (2021, March 4). The Biopsychosocial Associations Between Marital Hostility and Physical Health of Middle-Aged Couples. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000827