Conflict poses multiple relational and health risks. Dyadic stress theories suggest satisfaction and communication alter cardiovascular and autonomic function, key pathways from troubled relationships to poor health. However, “we-talk,” a positive communication pattern, can strengthen relationships and promote health. We examined how each spouse’s satisfaction and we-talk were related to conflict’s physiological, relational, and emotional toll.
Married couples (n = 107 couples, 214 individuals, ages 40–87 years) who were mostly White, highly educated, and higher-income Americans in different-gender relationships engaged in 20-minute conflict discussions while wearing monitors to assess heart rate variability (HRV). Spouses rated their closeness immediately after conflict and their conflict rumination 2 hours later. Conflict transcriptions measured we-talk, or the proportion of first-person plural pronouns (we, us, our).
Satisfied spouses or those in mutually satisfying relationships had higher HRV during conflict (b = 0.0001, p = .049), felt closer immediately after conflict (b = 0.07, p < .001), and ruminated less about the conflict 2 hours later (b = −0.26, p = .026). Spouses’ HRV was highest (b = 0.0002, p = .002) and rumination was lowest (b = −0.49, p = .019) when they or their partners were satisfied and used we-talk more often. Women’s HRV (b = 0.0001, p = .035) and rumination (b = −0.01, p = .02) benefited when both spouses were satisfied, as did closeness when women were satisfied (b = 0.10, p < .001). Men’s closeness benefited when they (b = 0.04, p = .003) or their wives (b = 0.04, p = .002) were satisfied.
The combination of mutually satisfying relationships and we-talk was associated with better relational and health outcomes after conflict. These findings are important for middle-aged and older couples whose relationships are central to their health.