Trouble in paradise? A strong social network may make marital conflicts less hazardous to your health.

By Amanda MacMillan
September 18, 2017

No relationship is without its rough patches, and it’s totally normal for couples to bicker with one another from time to time. But why do some couples get bogged down by these everyday tensions, while others overcome them quickly? A new study suggests that trusted friendships play an important role.

Turning to close friends and family members can help alleviate the stress of conflict between partners, according to the research published in Social Psychology and Personality. In fact, it may even protect against potential health consequences of marital spats, like elevated stress-hormone levels.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin wanted to study the connection between friendships and spousal tensions for two reasons, says lead author and former graduate student Liz Keneski, Ph.D. First, research has shown that romantic-partner conflicts can do real damage to psychological and physical health. And second, research has also shown that a supportive social network can act as a buffer against other types of life stressors.

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So Keneski and her colleagues asked 105 newlywed couples to keep daily records of marital arguments and other conflicts, and to answer questions about their current relationships with friends and family members. Specifically, they were asked, “If you were to have a marital difficulty or personal problem, how many people do you know, other than your spouse, who you would feel comfortable talking to about your problem? How satisfied are you with this?”

The couples also provided morning and evening saliva samples for six days, so the researchers could test their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The researchers found that the happier people were with their number of go-to friends and family, the less their cortisol levels rose on days they reported problems with their spouses.

The actual number of friends and family a person reported having didn’t appear to affect his or her ability to handle marital stress, the authors reported, but their satisfaction level with those people did. “That was a bit surprising, since you might think that only having one person to turn to might be less beneficial than having a whole group of people,” says Keneski.

But the fact that friendship quality seems to matter more than quantity is also comforting, says Keneski. “Even if people just had two or three close friends or family members who they were highly satisfied with, that was enough to protect them against the stress of conflict with their partner.”

The study didn’t ask participants what, exactly, they got out of these friendships that helped relieve their stress—whether it was venting about their partner, getting helpful advice, or simply just having a distraction from their marital problems. “My guess would be that it’s probably all of those things, but we’d need to do more research to know for sure,” says Keneski.

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The authors say their research is a powerful argument for the importance of not letting close friendships slip away once you get hitched.

“I think there’s this misconception that when you get married that all of your focus should turn to maintaining a solid relationship with your spouse,” says Keneski. “But what our study shows is that the other close relationships you have not only benefits you personally, but could also benefit your health and your marriage during those inevitable times of conflict.”

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