Not coping well with stress? It could be affecting your partner’s health

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

Stressed couple

Headaches, insomnia, nausea, restlessness — high levels of stress can take a toll on the body. But what if the consequences of stress affect more than just your own health? A new study in the Purdue University College of Health and Human Sciences suggests the way one partner in a relationship reacts to stress can affect their significant other’s health as well.

Rosie Shrout, assistant professor of human development and family studies and faculty associate of the Center on Aging and the Life Course, recently developed the Dyadic Biobehavioral Stress Model as an interdisciplinary roadmap to advance research on how relationships, stress and health intersect. The model does this by showing the pathways of an individual’s actions when they are stressed to see how those actions affect that person’s relationship and their partner’s health.

Rosie Shrout

Rosie Shrout, assistant professor of human development and family studiesPhoto provided

“This review paper and new model are trying to understand how our relationships help us live longer and healthier,” Shrout said. “I’m looking at it through the angle of what we are doing on a day-to-day basis with our partners and how we are dealing with stress that’s inevitable. How does what we do and what our partners do affect our own health?”

While previous models have shown how stress in relationships is tied to poor health outcomes, no prior model incorporated the relationship component where each partner’s actions are connected to the other person’s health.

Shrout is an interdisciplinary scholar, having training in social psychology, relationship and family science, and psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which is the connection of the mind’s processes and the body’s nervous and immune systems. She noted that this study allowed her to connect those different focus areas together.

Shrout’s study is published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity-Health as part of a special “Emerging Psychoneuroimmunology Research: Future Leaders in Focus” issue.

“When I saw the special issue that wanted to highlight new PNI perspectives, I thought it would be a great opportunity to show how our relationships — that dyadic piece — can fit within psychoneuroimmunology,” Shrout said.

Shrout previously found that when people had a contentious conversation with an already stressed spouse, their own bodies continued to react with a high cortisol response even four hours later. This elevated cortisol, which is the body’s response to stress, can become dysregulated and affect immune and metabolic processes.

Over time, an increase in the frequency of hostility in the relationship could lead to poor immune function and inflammation, which can worsen health outcomes. However, if the couple has positive interactions and the partners support one another, this could result in better health outcomes.

Shrout noted that the findings of this study are more important now than ever, as relationship scientists advocate to make relationships a public health priority and people realize the importance of interconnectedness.

“I think a lot of people in their own lives experienced that this last year and half with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shrout said. “We realized just how important those relationships are. Whether we can be in the same room with someone, hug our loved ones, show people that we care about them and feel cared for in return are directly connected to our well-being.”

The Dyadic Biobehavioral Stress Model is a mechanistic model that will serve to help researchers explore the relationship and health aspects that need further tested. This area of research could ultimately have practical implications for those seeking how relationship behaviors affect each partner’s health.

“We don’t just live in a bubble by ourselves,” Shrout said. “If you’re in a relationship, your partner is part of that, and the way that you see stress and the way that you navigate stress is going to affect both of you. If you’re not navigating it well, and it comes over and spills into the relationship, then it’s affecting your partner. Stress is contagious — we can catch our partners’ stress, and they can catch our stress.”

For Shrout, the research opens up an important way of thinking about the quality of years we live rather than simply the quantity.

“That sense of belonging is so important, and continuing to see how our relationships and what we do in those relationships can help us age healthier — especially as we live longer than we ever have before. It’s important to think about the number of healthy years lived rather than just the life span,” Shrout said.