Effects of Conflict and Stress on Relationships

Couple talking in kitchen

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Relationship conflict can be a significant source of stress. Whether the conflict is with a spouse, a difficult relative, or a friend, relationship conflict, especially ongoing conflict, can cause a level of stress that has a significant negative impact in several ways. The following are a few of the more significant ways that conflict and relationship stress can affect you.

Conflict Can Affect Your Health

Relationship conflict can negatively affect your health in several ways. Portland State University’s Institute on Aging studied over 650 adults over a two-year period and found that ‘stable negative social exchanges’ (in other words, repetitive or prolonged conflict) was significantly associated with lower self-rated health, greater functional limitations, and a higher number of health conditions. This may be due to the impact that stress has on immunity (stress can dampen your immune system), as well as other factors.

The important thing to remember is that ongoing conflict really can take a toll on your health. Not only will you be more susceptible to chronic headaches and colds and flu, but if your weakest point physically is your back, you can develop back pain. Or neck pain, etc.

You'll also have an increased chance of developing the following stress-influenced physical and mental health conditions:

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

Family Conflict Is Not Uncommon

If you experience conflict among members of your family, it may comfort you to know that you’re not alone; family conflict may be more common than you think. Many get stressed at family gatherings because of difficult relatives. There is not a lack of love (or families wouldn’t be gathering in the first place), but there is a lack of comfort in dealing with conflict among family members. Whether it’s open conflict over the dinner table or an underlying feeling of discomfort that remains unspoken, family conflict obviously causes a significant amount of stress with a lot of people.

Conflict Can Be Physically Painful

All those country songs about the pain of a broken heart may be backed up by science. Broken heart syndrome, or "stress cardiomyopathy," is triggered by extreme and sudden emotional trauma or physical stress, including domestic abuse. The condition typically causes severe pressure-like chest pain, similar to what someone would feel when having an acute heart attack.

Research on social exclusion shows that the pain of loneliness and social rejection is processed by the same area of the brain that processes physical pain. This explains why feeling rejected by a loved one can actually be physically painful.

If you're involved in a relationship that includes significant conflict and repeated feelings of rejection, you probably already know that you're also experiencing physical pain on a regular basis. This can include intense muscle tension, leg/foot cramps, and lower back pain.

Unacknowledged Conflict Can Still Hurt You

Relationships in which people "never fight" aren’t always as blissful as they seem. In real life, conflict is inevitable, and resolving it effectively can often be a pathway to greater understanding between two people, bringing them closer. Relationships in which anger is suppressed and unacknowledged by one or both partners can actually be unhealthy—literally.

The research found that in couples where one partner habitually suppressed anger, partners tended to die younger; couples in relationships where both partners suppressed anger tended to have the worst longevity. 

Poorly Managed Conflict Results in Much More Conflict

Knowing that unresolved conflict carries such risks can make it tempting to vent any anger we experience, anyway we like, but that’s not the right approach either. The way you resolve conflict in your relationships can make or break them, leaving you with a life of loneliness, or one rich with social support and love. The right conflict resolution skills, including getting in touch with your feelings, honing your listening skills, and practicing assertive communication, can help you handle relationship conflict in a healthy way so that you get the most out of your relationships, without letting them drain you.

Coping With Conflict

Effective communication is perhaps the best way to deal with conflict and stress in a relationship. If you are unable to do it on your own, or in the case of more extreme conflict, couples counseling or individual psychotherapy can be surprisingly helpful. Working with an in-person or online mental health professional can give you and your partner the tools to deal with conflict in a healthy way.

If your conflict is caused by a difficult relative or friend, attending therapy by yourself may help. Cognitive therapy can help you figure out what's behind the conflict, learn better conflict resolution skills, and offer strategies for managing the negative feelings that often tag along when you are stressed or hurt. When looking to find a professional to help you deal with relationship conflict, consider getting a referral from your primary care doctor, family, or friends.

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