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Conflict in Relationships - The Toll of Relationship Conflict

Poorly Handled Conflict Takes a Heavy Toll

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Updated November 02, 2009

Relationship conflict can be a significant source of stress, and is a topic that brings many emails to my inbox and posts on my forum. 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.

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. In fact, according to a poll on this site, over half of readers get stressed at family gatherings because of difficult relatives. The way I see it is that 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. 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.

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 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. (Read this piece on conflict and health for more on this research.)

Conflict Must Be Resolved In The Right Way

Knowing that unresolved conflict carries such risks can make it tempting to vent any anger we experience, any way we like, but that’s not always 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. These conflict resolution skills 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. And in cases of more extreme conflict, couples counseling or individual psychotherapy can be helpful.

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Sources:

Harburg, E.; Kaciroti, N.; Gleiberman, L.; Schork, M. A.; Julius, M. Marital Pair Anger Coping Types May Act as an Entity to Affect Mortality: Preliminary Findings from a Prospective Study. Journal of Family Communication, January 2008.

Newsom JT, Mahan TL, Rook KS, Krause N.Stable Negative Social Exchanges and Health. Health Psychology, January 2008.

Panksepp J. Neuroscience. Feeling the pain of social loss.. Science, October 2003.

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