How Communication is Linked to Health in Diverse Couples
New research offers a vital, more inclusive look at communication and health.
Posted December 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Growing evidence points to a link between how couples talk with each other and their physical and emotional wellness.
- Most studies on this link have included a small subset of couples—namely those who are White, have no health issues, and have a higher income.
- A research team looked at the link between health and communication among Black and White couples in which one partner has Type 2 diabetes.
- The results revealed similarities and differences among Black and White couples, and illustrate the need for more inclusivity in research.
When you think about the things that impact a person’s physical health, what typically comes to mind?
Arguably, many people would think about factors such as family history, exercise, sleep, diet, and the consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and other substances. But how often do people think about communication with a romantic partner? Probably not much, if at all.
And yet, as a team of researchers recently noted, growing evidence points to a relationship between how couples interface with each other and their physical and emotional well-being. Moreover, this same team also pointed to an important gap in the scientific literature: Most of these studies are based on a small subset of couples, namely those who don’t have any health conditions, are White, and who state that their income was in the middle range.
To correct for this, those researchers just published a study this month in which they looked at the connection between a) how couples talk to each other and b) how a partner feels and is able to manage Type 2 diabetes. They also recruited Black and White couples and had couples in the study who reported a wide range of income levels.
They interviewed couples about diabetes management, recorded partners talking together about an aspect of diabetes that was especially challenging and how they might be able to deal with it effectively, and evaluated how the partner with diabetes appeared to feel. They also asked couples to provide information every day for two weeks, and the research team focused on how the partner with diabetes felt and how they managed their health during that time.
They found that expressions of friendliness and affection from both partners were linked with feeling good about the talk the couple had. They also found that more unfavorable forms of communication (e.g., interacting in an antagonistic way, bickering, engaging in fault-finding, brushing off efforts to help) were linked with straying from a diabetes management diet and feeling more anger and less positivity later on. In addition, the results revealed that when the partner with diabetes appeared upset and distraught during the recorded conversation, this was linked to that partner feeling more upset, less upbeat, and having more difficulty following a diet conducive to managing diabetes.
The Impact of Race
The research team also found that the patterns of results for Black and White couples were similar in most ways. However, the researchers pointed to two differences.
First, they found that less constructive communication on the part of the person with diabetes was connected to higher glucose levels for Black partners with diabetes, whereas this did not occur for White partners with diabetes. Second, they found that when the partner with diabetes seemed more distraught during the recorded discussion, this was linked to greater difficulty following a diabetes management diet for Black partners, whereas this pattern did not emerge for White partners. It would be worth replicating this study, as the researchers noted that these two results went against what they predicted would happen.
Nevertheless, as the research team also correctly pointed out, the fact that there were meaningful differences between Black and White couples illustrates all the more how vital it is for relationship science to be more inclusive and actively explore romantic relationships reflecting various racial and ethnic backgrounds. On top of that, inclusiveness in research is simply the right thing to do. Science should represent all people, not a subset of them.
Helgeson, Naqvi, J. B., Gary-Webb, T., & Korytkowski, M. (2021). Observed couple interactions among White and Black persons with type 2 diabetes. Journal of Family Psychology, 35, 1117–1127.