Research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology has confirmed that negative communication patterns in heterosexual marriages are associated with decreased immune system functioning along with less positive and more negative emotions. The research highlights the physical and emotional consequences for those in marriages with dysfunctional communication patterns.
Previous studies have indicated that aggressive conduct during marital conversations can delay wound healing and raise proinflammatory cytokine production. Similarly, adverse communication patterns lead to increased negative emotions and challenges in resolving conflict.
Moreover, research suggests that self-reported communication patterns differ from actual behaviors used during discussions and that these patterns may influence how partners perceive and respond to specific marital conversations.
“Marriage is associated with better health, but chronically distressed marriages can worsen health,” said lead author Rosie Shrout, an assistant professor at Purdue University. “It’s important to understand what is going on behind the scenes that contributes to these effects.”
Shrout and her colleagues identified typical communication patterns seen in marital conversations. These include the demand/withdraw pattern, where one partner makes criticisms or demands change while the other avoids or withdraws from the conversation. This pattern is linked to an increased cortisol reaction to discussions about marriage. Mutual avoidance is another pattern that can harm a relationship, as it is connected to more distress and less intimacy. In contrast, mutual constructive communication is associated with less distress, more intimacy, and higher satisfaction.
Research has also revealed that women tend to be more affected by marital stress than men. Western culture generally encourages women to take on greater responsibility for resolving conflicts. When couples engage in negative communication and behavior, women may interpret this as a sign of trouble in the relationship and experience greater negative consequences for their health and connection with their partner.
Shrout and colleagues intended to explore the correlation between communication styles, wound healing, moods, and assessments in married couples. Forty-two couples who had been married for at least two years and were not affected by any health issues that could hinder wound healing were included in the study.
Both partners underwent the same procedure of suction blistering on their forearms and were asked to engage in a social support discussion during the first visit and a conflict discussion during the second visit. Participants’ inflammation levels, communication patterns, and wound healing were measured daily for eight days and then again on the 12th day. The couples stayed together in the same room to ensure consistent physical activity.
The findings indicated that the existence of social support helped in decreasing inflammation and quickening wound healing. On the other hand, marital discord led to increased inflammation and delayed wound healing. Additionally, it was discovered that mutual constructive communication patterns were linked with faster wound healing.
These results imply that good communication patterns and social support positively impact wound healing, while negative communication patterns and marital conflict have adverse effects.
The results also showed that women were more susceptible to these behavioral effects, indicating the potential health and relational risks of chronic and acute marital negativity. Additionally, the couples’ habitual patterns acted as a lens through which they responded to communication behaviors, diminishing the benefits of positive behavior.
“If they were more negative typically on a day-to-day basis, and were negative in those specific interactions, they rated the discussion more negatively and less positively, they felt fewer positive emotions, and their wounds healed more slowly,” Shrout said. “That chronic negativity and acute negativity had emotional, relational and immune effects — most notably for women.”
The research highlights the importance of recognizing the impact of different patterns, such as demand/withdrawal, mutual avoidance, and mutual constructive communication, on relationships and health.
The research team acknowledged some limitations to the study. The sample consisted mainly of white, educated, different-gender couples. In the future, communication patterns and behaviors need to be studied in more diverse couples, including same-gender couples.
“This study provides a window into relationships: What couples say about their relationship really did translate not only into how they behaved, but also what they said about the behavior, and their biology,” said study co-author Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser in a news release. “They walked into this study situation, and the way they’re responding may in part be because that’s what they’re expecting. They have such well-worn tracks in terms of interactions that it’s hard to derail the train.”
The study, “Marital negativity’s festering wounds: The emotional, immunological, and relational toll of couples’ negative communication patterns“, was authored by M. Rosie Shrout, Megan E. Renna, Annelise A. Madison, William B. Malarkey, Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser.