Negative communication patterns between spouses are linked to higher inflammation and slower healing of physical wounds in both men and women. The corresponding study was published in Psychoneuroendocrinology.
The present study was based on data from a study conducted in 2005. For the study, researchers recruited 42 married couples who had been together for an average of 12 years. They recorded their levels of inflammatory markers in the blood at the start of the study and used a device to raise small blisters on each of their forearms to assess healing times as a proxy of immune function.
The researchers also asked participants to describe their typical communication patterns, including demand and withdrawal strategies, mutual discussion avoidance, and mutual constructive communication. They also watched how participants engaged in discussions on two separate occasions. The first involved the topic of social support, and the second: an attempt to resolve a known source of tension in the marriage, such as finances. The researchers recorded positive and negative behaviors from observing these discussions.
In follow-ups, participants evaluated their discussions, describing whether or not they were satisfied with how they went, how supported and understood they felt, how 'in control' they felt, and whether they were able to work productively to sort out problems. The researchers also assessed how quickly their blisters healed, checking in daily for eight days and again on day 12.
In the current study, the researchers statistically modeled the qualitative and biological data. They found that negative communication patterns- in particular mutual avoidance or demand/ withdrawal behavior- was linked to more inflammation, slower wound healing, more negative emotion, less positive emotion, and poorer discussion evaluations.
"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," said first author Rosie Shrout, who completed this work as a postdoctoral researcher in Ohio State's Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research (IBMR), in a press release.
"That chronic negativity and acute negativity had emotional, relational and immune effects -- most notably for women," she added.
The researchers also found that couples who avoided talking about difficult topics and showed fewer positive behaviors during lab discussions experienced slower wound healing. The same was true even among couples who had more positive communication patterns when resolving conflict.
The researchers concluded that their findings might help explain how distressed marriages impact spousal health. They noted, however, that these findings don’t mean that ‘all is lost’, as couples can improve their communication through education and therapy.