We all get into arguments with our partner every now and then. In fact, disagreeing is healthy to some extent.
However, a recent study from The Ohio State University found that when married couples have bitter arguments, they’re more likely to suffer from leaky gut, a problem that unleashes bacteria into the blood and can drive up disease-causing inflammation.
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University, and lead author of the study, said anything that promotes inflammation chronically can lead to a number of different health problems.
“Inflammation is more and more being seen as associated with a whole host of things you don’t want — cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, frailty, and functional decline,” Kiecolt-Glaser told Healthline.
She said that’s why she wanted to analyze how stress in relationships can affect health.
For the study, Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues surveyed more than 40 physically healthy married couples who reported a range of marital satisfaction. The couples were prompted to discuss and try to resolve issues that had the potential to stir up disagreement, such as money and in-laws.
During the 20-minute discussions, the couples were left alone and videotaped. The researchers later observed how the couples fought, particularly paying attention to their verbal and nonverbal behaviors, such as dramatic eye rolls or criticism of their partner.
“Some would respond by saying, ‘We’ll never agree on this.’ Others would get real nasty and say things like, ‘You idiot. How could you possibly say something like that?’” said Kiecolt-Glaser.
The interactions were scored accordingly, considering body language and tone of voice. Then researchers compared blood drawn from the couples before their discussions and after.
Both men and women who showed more hostile behaviors during the discussions had higher levels of the leaky gut biomarker LPS-binding protein than those who showed calmer behavior while disagreeing.
Evidence of leaky gut was even greater in those who displayed hostile interactions with their partner and who also had a history of depression or another mood disorder.
“There have been animal studies that show that stress can lead to leaky gut in mice, and studies with clinical depression that have shown the same, but this shows that chronic marital stress can lead to greater gut leakiness, and that leakiness is very much associated with inflammation,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.
However, she pointed out that the findings don’t imply that arguing or disagreeing is bad.
“In a healthy marriage, you have to have emotional housekeeping. You have to discuss disagreements, but it’s the way you discuss them that has an impact on your health,” said Kiecolt-Glaser.
Relationships and health go hand in hand
The findings of the Ohio State study seem logical to human behavior expert Patrick Wanis, PhD, who says it’s common knowledge that stress damages our health.
“We’ve known for years that stress creates fatigue, aches, pains, insomnia, anxiety and [it can affect] the gastrointestinal tract with ulcers, IBS, and the endocrine system, as well as your thyroid. We know that stress leads to high blood pressure, heart attacks, stroke, and more,” he said.
In turn, if there is stress in a relationship, he says that stress will affect your health.
Because people are hardwired for attachment and have the desire to connect with people, Wanis notes if your connection to another person is in a state of imbalance, then your body will also be in a state of imbalance.
“What impacts the relationship greatly are three things: the type of stress (individual or couple), the level of stress, and the response to stress,” he said.
The type of stress refers to something that is either affecting one person in the relationship, such as death of a loved one, job loss, illness, or something that is affecting both people, such as finances.
“With individual stress… it’s not that you and I are fighting, it’s that I have my own stress,” Wanis explained.
For instance, he works with a marriage family therapist who counsels couples. When the therapist identifies that one of the partners has a particular issue that needs resolving, such as depression, anxiety, or past trauma, he’ll refer him or her to Wanis to work on their individual problem first. After they talk with Wanis, they go back to the marriage family therapist for counseling with their spouse.
“If you know that your partner is creating the stress, it’s about you sitting down and saying, ‘this is what I see. How can we solve this?’” Wanis said.
If the stress is within the couple, Wanis says disagreements might be about what house to buy, where to go on vacation, and beyond. However, he said the most common reasons people argue include how to raise children or parenting style, money, and sex and intimacy (which are independent of each other).
According to an ongoing study Wanis is conducting of about 2,000 people, the main arguments for men and women that cause breakups are the following:
1. We wanted different things in life.
2. I wanted more time than my ex could offer.
3. We argued constantly.
4. We were in different stages of life.
5. It was bad timing.
1. We had issues with intimacy.
2. We wanted different things in life.
3. She cheated on me.
4. We argued constantly.
5. We’re in different stages in life.
“The fact that both men and women cited in the top 5 that they argued constantly tells you that people are not skilled at resolving conflict,” Wanis said.
The reason for arguing determines the level of stress, he noted.
“If we’re arguing on where to go on [vacation], out of a 10 maybe that’s a 3 or 4. If we’re talking about finances, and one partner is spending tremendously and we’re going into debt, then that’s going to create a stress that might be 8 or 9,” he said.
How to respond to stress
While stress is an inevitable part of life, Kiecolt-Glaser says stress between spouses is particularly detrimental.
“The thing about a spouse is that your spouse is typically your major source of support. If your spouse becomes your major source of stress, you don’t have a major source of support, and now it’s been replaced by a major source of stress, so you now have a double whammy,” she said.
Wanis advised the best way to address stress within a relationship is to become self-aware.
“If you and I are having an argument, if I’m undergoing stress or you’re undergoing stress in your own life and I’m your partner, I still want to look at myself and say how is this affecting me? What can I do to help her? What can I do for our relationship?” he said.
For example, if you’re stressed because of work, become aware of the possibility that you’re projecting your fear, anxiety, and challenges onto your partner.
The same goes for something that is stressing out both partners.
“Let’s say we’re both concerned about how we’re going to pay the mortgage this month and maybe next month, if I lack self-awareness, I may simply come home and start to create arguments and start blaming you for our problems,” Wanis explained.
When couples find themselves in the middle of an argument, Wanis offered the following tips for navigating the disagreement:
- Notice what you’re trying to achieve through the argument. Are you arguing because you want to be right, or want to punish your partner, or are you trying to find a resolution?
- Become aware of what you’re feeling and what’s happening to your body. Are you breathing shallow, tensing up, sweating, or is your heart racing? Do you have pains in your stomach?
- If you realize that your emotions or your partner’s are starting to overpower either of you, stop and tell your partner that you both need to take a 20-minute walk. While walking, focus on calming down your nervous system by breathing slowly and deeply and becoming aware of your surroundings.
“The most important thing isn’t the argument, it’s the way you argue it and the way you resolve it,” said Wanis. “Arguments don’t destroy the relationship. It’s the way that people argue that destroys the relationship and the way people respond to arguments.”
Kiecolt-Glaser agrees. She added that health habits people exhibit when under stress also play a part.
“People who have a more active lifestyle with more exercise tend to have better gut health.
There’s good evidence that poor diets, especially those high in saturated fat, are associated with leaky gut, so when we’re stressed we don’t reach for broccoli, we reach for the donuts,” she said. “We also sleep more poorly when under stress, and poor sleep can also contribute to leaky gut based on animal data.”
Diets high in lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can all help with gut health too.
“When we’re stressed, it’s all the things we do and don’t do [to our bodies], in addition to the stress, that impact everything in our lives, including our relationships,” said Kiecolt-Glaser.