Partnering To Heal: Can Marital Conflict Lower Immunity?


Remember the promised to stay together in sickness and in health? But what if you’re the cause of the sickness. Yes, that’s right. As per research, frequent or prolonged conflicts between couples could increase stress and lower immunity. But keeping each other happy can have a positive impact on each of your health. Read more.

The Murthys (name changed on request) were a contented couple who enjoyed sharing the responsibility of bringing up their two children. Tragedy struck when Mrs. Murthy was diagnosed with breast cancer. The peace at home was lost to increased marital conflict.

Marital conflicts are quite common, especially if a couple faces differences in attitude or thinking, develops faulty coping patterns, or spends insufficient time together.  The list can go on, but the trauma of cancer and its treatment can compound the potential for conflict.

Marital conflict increases stress and lowers immunity

Research findings show that the more couples exhibit negative and hostile behaviours, the higher their stress hormone levels and the lower their immune system responses.

To examine this phenomenon, married couples were admitted to a hospital research unit for 24 hours, where they underwent psychological tests and received questionnaire assessments of their marital satisfaction and mood.

In the study, biological measures were taken unobtrusively from the couples as they engaged in 30 minutes of marital conflict. Their interactions were videotaped and scored using a coding system called the Marital Interaction Coding System (MICS), to measure the extent of the hostile and negative behaviours exhibited.

Results revealed that

  • Among wives, escalation of negative behaviour during conflict and marital dissatisfaction showed a strong correlation to endocrine changes.
  • In contrast, husbands’ endocrine data did not show a significant correlation with negative behaviour or marital quality.
  • Both men and women who displayed more negative behaviour during conflict showed relatively poorer immune responses.
  • These people also characterized their usual marital disagreements as more negative than people who showed better immune responses across tests.

Chronic stress can compromise immunity

In addition, the study showed that chronic psychological stress can reduce and slow down the immune system’s response to inflammations caused by hormonal imbalances. This has significant implication for people with cancer (particularly women), whose immune system needs to be fighting fit.

Managing stress is vital to healing

Couples facing cancer need to maintain a loving and supportive relationship in order to enhance healing. Particularly if you choose to do things together – through humour, taking a walk, enjoying a hobby or by spending time in meditation – transforming stress transforms your body chemistry for the better, boosting your immune function and the chances of living happily, beyond cancer.

Surely, this is something that both partners will want?


  • “Effects of Stress and Psychological Disorders on the Immune System”. Survey study by David B. Beaton, Rochester Institute of Technology.
  • Miller GE, Cohen S, Ritchey AK. Chronic “Psychological Stress and The Regulation of Pro-inflammatory Cytokines:  A glucocorticoid Resistance Model” Health Psychol 2002; 21:531-41.
  • Kiecolt Glaser et al (1997) “Marital Conflict In Older Adults: Endocrinological and Immunological Correlates:” Psychosomatic Medicine Vol  59 pp 339-49.
  • Malarkey et al (1994) “Hostile Behaviour During Marital Conflict Alters Pituitary and Adrenal Hormones” Psychosomatic Medicine Vol 56 pp 41-51.


Manjari Chandrashekar is a student of Communications at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore. An avid reader, she is passionate about classical dance, music and art. She enjoys learning new things, meeting new people and travelling. Along with her parents, Manjari lives with seven cats and two dogs, whom she cherishes dearly.


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