Burying your real feelings in an intimate relationship in order to maintain it feels like you’ve been put in charge of keeping a very boring, very painful secret. Called ‘self-silencing,’ this behavior pattern includes things like consistently prioritizing a partner’s needs at the expense of one’s own, or declining to express negative emotions in order to appease a partner. It can seem like the right thing to do in the moment, but an increasing amount of research is showing that women who bottle up their emotions are at increased risk for a laundry list of physical and mental ailments when compared to their loud-mouthed peers.
Studies conducted over the last few decades have already linked women’s self-silencing to irritable bowel syndrome, depression, increased sensitivity to rejection, and even increased risk of death (I know!), the latter in a longitudinal study that observed married women over a 10-year span and pegged their rate of mortality as four times higher than their more expressive peers. Now, new research by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh’s psychiatry department has tied self-silencing to increased arterial plaque buildup. This buildup ups a woman’s risk of having a stroke, or experiencing “other cardiovascular problems,” according to a press release. The study, which will be presented to the North American Menopause Society on Thursday, looked at 304 “perimenopausal and postmenopausal” women and determined that the ones who reported self-silencing behaviors had “increased odds of plaque” compared to women who did not report engaging in them.
The study’s lead author pointed to the “increased public health interest in women’s experiences in intimate relationships” as relevant context for the study. While its sample size is small, these findings give more support to the larger body of research on self-silencing, suggesting that saying what’s on your mind isn’t just about being a #girlboss—in all likelihood, it’s literally better for your mental and physical well-being.
It’s worth noting the research that has linked self-silencing to domestic abuse, be it emotional or physical. But self-silencing can also be as simple as declining to tell your partner their “cute” nickname for you actually hurts your feelings. It’s hard to buck the societal conditioning that paints women as crazy, unstable, and dramatic for, you know, feeling and externalizing their emotions. For women in relationships, prioritizing yourself and engaging in open, honest communication can literally be life or death.
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