Effects of Conflict and Stress on Relationships

Couple talking in kitchen

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Relationship conflict can be a significant source of stress. When the conflict in your relationship is ongoing, it creates stress that can negatively affect the health and well-being of both you and your partner. Here are a few ways that conflicts in a relationship can affect you physically and mentally, as well as some tips for how to cope.

What Is Relationship Conflict?

Relationship conflict is a disagreement between people (e.g., partners, friends, siblings, or co-workers). The root of the conflict might be something like a difference of opinion, experience, taste, perspective, personality, or beliefs.

Conflict is generally intense enough to disrupt some aspect of the relationship, such as communication, which is what differentiates conflict from simply having a different point of view.

It's not just romantic partners who can experience relationship conflict—families can also be in conflict. Whether it’s open debate over dinner or an underlying feeling of discomfort that remains unspoken, family conflict can cause a significant amount of stress. It might be that there's no lack of love between members, but rather, a lack of comfort in dealing with conflict.

You can experience conflict in any type of relationship you have, be it with your partner, parent, sibling, child, friend, or even a co-worker.

While it can be difficult and uncomfortable, conflict in a relationship is not always a bad thing. When it is healthy and productive, relationship conflict presents an opportunity for people to learn about how others see and experience the world. It can also generate creative solutions to problems and help people grow.

However, when conflict is not productive or healthy, it can be harmful to everyone involved. Sustained, unresolved conflict can create tension at home or at work, can erode the strength and satisfaction of relationships, and can even make people feel physically sick or in pain.

Conflict Can Affect Your Health

Research has shown that relationship conflict can negatively affect your health. For example, researchers at Portland State University’s Institute on Aging studied more than 650 adults over a two-year period. The researchers found that "stable negative social exchanges" (in other words, repetitive or prolonged conflict) were significantly associated with lower self-rated health, greater functional limitations, and a higher number of health conditions.

These findings impact several health factors, but one key takeaway seems to be that stress can weaken your immune system. Exposure to conflict can make you more susceptible to infectious illnesses like colds and the flu. Some people also experience chronic pain related to stress, such as headaches and back or neck pain.

Conditions Associated With Chronic Stress

If your stress levels are not managed, it can put you at an increased risk for developing stress-influenced physical and mental health conditions, such as:

  • Acne
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Burnout
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive issues (such as diarrhea, constipation, ulcers)
  • Hair loss
  • Heart disease
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Insomnia
  • Obesity
  • Sexual dysfunction or changes in libido
  • Tooth and gum disease

Conflict Can Be Physically Painful

Those country songs about the pain of a broken heart might actually be backed up by science. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (also known as stress cardiomyopathy or "broken heart syndrome") is triggered by extreme and sudden emotional trauma or physical stress.

"Broken heart syndrome" typically causes severe pressure-like chest pain, similar to what someone would feel when having a heart attack.

Research on social exclusion has revealed that the pain of loneliness and social rejection is processed by the same area of the brain that processes physical pain, which is why it can physically hurt to be rejected by a loved one.

Conflict between partners or within families can also lead to the condition. When you are repeatedly exposed to stress and conflict in a relationship, you might develop a heightened sensitivity to physical pain or even become numb to it.

Relationship conflict is not the same as abuse. if your partner is physically or emotionally abusive—whether in the presence of a conflict or not—there are resources you can turn to for help.

Contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Unacknowledged Conflict Can Still Hurt You

Conflict is inevitable. Relationships in which people "never fight" are not always as blissful as they seem. When anger is suppressed or unacknowledged by partners or family members, it can actually be unhealthy.

Research has found that in couples where one partner habitually suppressed anger, both partners tended to die younger. On the other hand, acknowledging and effectively resolving conflict can be a pathway to greater understanding between two people, bringing them closer.

Poorly Managed Conflict Results in More Conflict

Knowing that unresolved conflict has risks might make you think that you need to vent your anger in any way (and at any time and to any person) that you want. That's not necessarily the healthiest way to approach and work through conflict, either.

The way you approach and resolve conflict can influence the health of all your relationships—be it with a spouse, parent, friend, co-worker, or child.

Tips for Conflict Resolution

While conflict is a part of life and relating to other people, it does not necessarily have to jeopardize your relationships. If you learn how to recognize conflict and work through it in a healthy way, it often strengthens your relationship.

The key is to learn and continually hone your conflict resolution skills. Being able to recognize and identify your feelings and express them clearly, learning how to be an active listener, and practicing assertive communication are just a few skills that can help you handle relationship conflict in a healthy way.

When relationship conflict arises between you and your partner, there are some specific tips that can make it easier for you to work through it together.

Use "I" Statements

If you're in an argument with your partner, try to resist the urge to constantly toss out "you's." Instead of saying, "You did that thing I hate!" (which could be taken as an accusation), take responsibility for how you feel while clearly identifying how your partner's behavior influenced you.

For example, you might say, "I feel frustrated because you left your plate on the table instead of putting it in the sink. Since I had asked you to do that before we sat down to eat, it makes me feel like you weren't listening to me or that you don't care about my needs."

Providing specifics may help your partner recognize a behavior they are more than willing to work on but hadn't been aware of. It also gives them the opportunity to defend or explain a behavior if they feel they have been misunderstood.

While "I" statements are helpful when you are talking about how you feel about a situation when it's time for you and your partner to take action, move to a unified "we." Saying "I have to solve this problem" could make you feel overwhelmed and alone. Saying "You have to solve this problem" could make it seem like you aren't taking responsibility for your part and leaving all the work up to your partner.

It's more empowering to see a conflict from the perspective of "we have to solve this problem" rather than the solitary "I" or "you."

Be Respectful and Kind

Conflicts in a relationship don't have to turn into down-and-out fights. You can have a disagreement with your partner without yelling, name-calling, dredging up the past, belittling them, or minimizing your needs.

As you are speaking with your partner, stay aware of how you are feeling as you are speaking. If you can feel that you are tensing up, your voice might become raised or your tone aggressive. If you feel or hear these changes, stop and take a breath.

Calling your partner names, screaming over them when they are talking, making threats, and using a mocking or sarcastic tone of voice isn't just disrespectful—it will also prevent any kind of effective communication.

It also could cause more relationship problems on top of the one you are attempting to solve, not to mention lead to hurt feelings that could make it less likely concerns will be shared openly in the future.

Listen to Understand

One of the tenants of being an active listener is to listen and truly hear what the other person is saying with the intention to understand—not just to determine when it's your turn to start talking again.

If you are having a disagreement with your partner, it's important that you really take the time to understand not just how they feel, but why they feel that way. This approach shows that you are making an effort not just to see things from their point of view, but also to understand where they are coming from.

Being an active listener is also valuable when you are trying to find a solution to a problem together.

If you are only thinking about what you think will work without taking your partner's suggestions into consideration, they might feel that you are ignoring or invalidating them. It also could get in the way of a productive—and efficient—resolution to the problem.

Consider Timing

Try to avoid discussing disagreements or trying to solve a problem when you and your partner are tired, stressed, or not feeling well. If you want to make the most of your conversation and come to an effective solution, you both need to be in the right physical and mental space to do the work.

If you start talking through something difficult with your partner and find that you are becoming too angry, overwhelmed, or tired to continue, take a break. Resume the discussion when you've both had a chance to rest and regroup.

Having a conversation that requires a lot of emotional work is bound to be much more difficult if you and your partner are distracted by other worries.

For example, if you and your partner are trying to work through a disagreement you are having about who will pick your child up from soccer practice but you're feeling bogged down by work-related worries or financial concerns you've been meaning to bring up, you'll be distracted from the issue at hand that needs your full attention.

Agree to Disagree

Compromise can also be a healthy way to handle conflict in a relationship—as long as you are not using it to avoid the conflict.

You might find that there are certain differences between you and your partner that strongly define who you are as individuals. For example, when it's something like a matter of taste or preference, you might find that "agreeing to disagree" is the best solution—and one that lets you celebrate your differences.

Coping With Relationship Conflict

Effective communication is perhaps the most important skill for addressing conflict and stress in a relationship. If you are having a hard time developing this skill, or if the conflict in your relationship is extreme, couples counseling might be useful.

You and your partner might also benefit from individual therapy. A mental health professional (whether online or in-person) can give you both the tools you need to effectively handle conflict.

If your partner or family member with whom you are in conflict does not wish to pursue therapy, either on their own or with you, you might still find it helpful to pursue on your own.

One modality that many people find useful is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help you figure out what's behind the conflict in your relationship, improve your conflict resolution skills, and offer strategies for managing the negative feelings that might emerge when you are feeling stressed or hurt.

If you're looking for a mental health professional to work with but aren't sure where to start, ask your primary care doctor for a referral.

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