During the pandemic, couples, roommates, and other household members have been living in tighter quarters without time or space away from one another—circumstances that inevitably breed conflict and stress.
A survey of Verywell readers showed that some couples managed to capitalize on the time they were stuck together in 2020 to make improvements on their relationships or establish new ways to connect, but for the 27% of couples who reported to be thriving, the same number reported they were struggling with their relationships. They named increased arguments and disagreements as contributing factors to the tension.
Each household has its own way of dealing with disagreements, but a new study out of Oregon State University suggests that resolving matters quickly could have lasting health benefits.
The research, published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, revealed that when conflicts are resolved, the stress related to those experiences is diminished and can even disappear altogether. Because stress has startling impacts on overall health, these findings highlight the importance of confronting disagreements head-on.1
The Benefits of Conflict Resolution
Previous research underlines that avoided conflicts are correlated with lower rates of self-reported health and that partners who avoid conflict even tend to live shorter lives.2 When conflicts go unresolved, it can cause physical pain and discomfort (much like aching encountered during loneliness or rejection from a loved one) and a variety of serious health outcomes.
For this study, Dakota Witzel and Robert Stawski of Oregon State University used data from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS 2): Daily Stress Project, 2004-2009 to compare self-reported responses from 2,022 participants about their choices to confront or avoid conflicts and how these behaviors impacted their short-term emotions, as well as their perceived stress the day after the conflict.
The pair found that those who reported having resolved the conflict the same day it occurred experienced fewer negative emotions and a lower decline in positive emotions. This means that their positive emotions remained more stable and negative emotions did not emerge as readily as those who avoided confronting conflicts.
This same group of participants did not experience any prolonged negative emotions on the day following the argument. In contrast, those who avoided arguments experienced both negative emotions on the day of the conflict and lingering stress the day after.
The pair believes that conflict resolution aids the body in emotional downregulation, the process that reduces the intensity of emotional experiences. This crucial process helps to reset the body after heightened emotions during a conflict—a process that conflict avoidance doesn’t promote. When the body doesn’t engage with that process, it will remain in a heightened state of arousal.
The inability to regulate emotions and difficulties with downregulation has been linked with negative coping skills and lifestyle changes. For example, those who cannot leave a heightened state of arousal might experience decreased sleep, changes in eating habits, increased uses of alcohol and smoking, behaviors and experiences that can lead to negative health outcomes and chronic disease.3
Behavioral changes aren’t the only cause of negative health outcomes associated with stress. Stress actually changes the chemical reactions in the body. For example, heart rate and blood pressure are elevated when encountering a stressor. This is part of a natural warning system that informs the brain about impending dangers. But constant elevations cause wear and tear on the cardiovascular system which increases risk for strokes, heart attacks, and chronic disease.3
How Relationships Contribute to Stress
Stressors refer to a wide variety of experiences that our bodies perceive as especially challenging. Our body enters a heightened state of arousal when chemical changes are triggered by an external event (or sometimes internal events, like illness). Arguments, disagreements, and other interpersonal conflicts can be perceived as stressors, and they can never be completely avoided in relationships.
Years of research demonstrate that stress negatively impacts physical and mental health. It can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, increased infection rates, shifts in sex drive and menstruation, and other physical changes and ailments, in addition to mental health concerns such as difficulty concentrating, emotional responses, or mood swings.
Even stressors that seem small or unrelated to one another at the moment contribute to chronic stress as they linger or compile over time.
Daily stressors—specifically the minor, small inconveniences that we have throughout the day—even those have lasting impacts on mortality and things like inflammation and cognitive function.
Combined with other increasing stressors related to Covid-19 and life’s more typical burdens or worries, stress levels soared in the spring of 2020, with some reporting that they’d felt more stress during that time than during the entire previous year.4
Seemingly minor annoyances like someone else’s dishes piled in the sink or disagreements over other daily living habits might not seem like factors that negatively impact physical well-being, but these interpersonal conflicts create daily stressors. The compounded stress of daily life contributes to chronic stress.