The ups and downs in our everyday relationships have a direct impact on our physiological health, according to a new study from the University of Auckland.

The research found relationships with a lot of conflict cause greater stress, worse coping abilities and overall worse physical health.

And people in close relationships with less conflict tend to have better physical health.

“So if you have a high degree of closeness in the relationships in your daily life then what our study suggests is that’s going to be associated with lower stress, better coping, and a better physiological profile. So lower blood pressure, for example”, Co-author Dr Brian Don says. 

Don says there was also one unexpected result that the researchers found.

He says a combination of “ups and downs” with both closeness and a little bit of conflict in everyday life can actually be good for us. 

“Maybe that actually reflects sort of the normal relationship that we all have a little bit of conflict, that kind of goes up and down and day to day life. And that's actually probably a healthy thing.” 

Dr Brian Don, Faculty of Science at University of Auckland. Photo: Supplied

How the ‘ups and downs’ were measured

To carry out the study, the universities partnered up with Samsung to create smartphones for participants to wear that read things like blood pressure and heart rate. 

The smartphones were connected to an app that ran and managed the data collection.

“We had over 20,000 sort of daily reports of people’s everyday experiences, like their stress and their coping and then also their readouts of their blood pressure and their heart rate, from which we were able to calculate blood pressure and heart rate reactivity,” Don says.

Why is this study unique? 

While Don says similar studies have been done on this in the past, he says this study is different because of its sheer size and the combination of experiences. 

Previous studies only used sample sizes of about 100 people while this one had more than 4000 from New Zealand, Australia, the US, Hong Kong, the UK and spanned two and a half years.

“The thing that was really unique about this study is we had a really enormous sample, where we looked at a lot of people's experiences throughout the course of everyday life, “ he says.

“So a lot of research in the past had either looked at positive relational experiences, looked at negative relational experiences, or looked at just the average experiences that we have in our daily life... But what they hadn't done was looked at all of those things together.”

The good, the bad and the variable

When Don was deciding on the focus of his PHD, he looked to his own personal experiences to help him make the decision. 

“My personal relationships with my family, my friends and my intimate partners have had such a big impact on me as a human and to try and understand how they influence us not just psychologically but under the skin”, he says.

Don says some of the literature from previous studies argues that conflict is more important than satisfaction when it comes to our emotional and physical health.

But he says, their research shows that’s not true. Both conflict and closeness are needed and play a key role in all of our lives which shows why this research looking at both experiences is so important. 

“All of our relationships involve some level of conflict, they all involve some level of positivity and closeness. So if we examine them separately, we might be missing how those key dynamics interplay throughout the course of everyday life.”

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