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 with a spouse, relative, or friend, relationship conflict—especially ongoing conflict—can create a level of stress that can have a significant negative impact on your health and well-being. The following are a few of the more significant ways that conflict and relationship stress can affect you, and tips for how to cope.

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 people get stressed at family gatherings because of difficult relatives. In many cases, there is not a lack of love (or families wouldn’t be gathering in the first place), but there is often 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 can cause a significant amount of stress.

How 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) were significantly associated with lower self-rated health, greater functional limitations, and a higher number of health conditions. These findings 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. You may become more susceptible to chronic headaches and illnesses like cold and flu. You may also experience chronic pain in areas like your back or neck.

Conditions Associated With Chronic Stress

You may have an increased chance of developing the following stress-influenced physical and mental health conditions when stress is not managed:

  • 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

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, also known as Takotsubo cardiomyopathy 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, which 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 may also experience heightened sensitivity to physical pain or even numbness. 

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.

Research has found that in couples where one partner habitually suppressed anger, partners tended to die younger, and couples in relationships where both partners suppressed anger tended to have the worst longevity.

Poorly Managed Conflict Results in 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 often not the healthiest approach either. The way you resolve conflict in your relationships can make or break them, leaving you with loneliness or a life rich in 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 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, too. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 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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