Could Being In A Marginalized Relationship Be Bad For Your Health?

Sad couple embracing with the partners gripping each other tightly

Many people are involved in romantic relationships that are not accepted by their family, friends, or society at large. Sometimes it is because the partners are of the same sex, while other times it is because the partners are of different races or because one partner is much older than the other.  Regardless of why one’s relationship is socially rejected, this bias can have significant implications for the partners involved. For instance, the more relationship disapproval a couple experiences, the more likely they are to break up in the future [1]. A brand new study suggests that the effects of romantic disapproval may extend even further than this and could potentially harm couple members' health and well-being [2].

In this study, 834 individuals in romantic relationships completed an online survey in which they answered questions about their current health status and behaviors, feelings of stress, and the extent to which they feel their relationship is socially accepted or rejected. Results indicated that the more an individual felt their relationship was the target of disapproval, the worse their physical and psychological health. Specifically, participants in marginalized relationships reported lower self-esteem, more symptoms of poor health (e.g., headaches, nausea, loss of sexual interest), and a greater frequency of risky health behaviors, including more cigarette smoking and less consistent condom use.

How do we explain this pattern of effects? One possibility is that being in a marginalized relationship is stressful—and indeed, in this study, greater relationship disapproval was associated with feeling more stress. There is a large body of research indicating that chronic stress puts a lot of wear and tear on our minds and bodies. In addition, people often turn to risky behaviors (e.g., substance use) during times of stress as a coping mechanism. Thus, to the extent that experiencing disapproval of one’s relationship is stressful (which the data suggest), this provides a rather intuitive explanation for the negative health effects documented in this study.

Of course, the nature of this study does not allow us to draw definitive conclusions about cause-and-effect. This means that other explanations, although they may seem unlikely, are certainly possible (e.g., perhaps people in marginalized relationships are more stressed and in worse health to begin with). However, these findings suggest that the effects of relationship disapproval may extend further than many of us ever thought possible and they highlight the importance of conducting further research in this area.

To learn more about this study and what it is like to live in a marginalized relationship more generally, you can listen to an interview with Dr. Lehmiller on the Relationship Matters podcast as well as download a free copy of the original journal article by clicking here.

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[1] Lehmiller, J. J., & Agnew, C. R. (2007). Perceived marginalization and the prediction of romantic relationship stability. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69, 1036-1049.

[2] Lehmiller, J. J. (in press). Perceived marginalization and its association with physical and psychological health. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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