A biracial man living in mostly white, conservative Arizona, 35-year-old Frank has often experienced racism. During the two years he lived with his white mother and black American father post-college in Show Low, a remote mountain town, police pulled him over 16 times. These days, he encounters a quieter, institutionalized bias in his workplace, where he believes the predominantly white upper management continually overlook him for promotion in favor of his less-qualified white peers.
These instances throw Frank off-kilter when he comes home from work, his wife Jamie, also 35 and biracial (Filipina and white), tells me. Although he tries to work out his frustration by exercising or playing video games, his mood affects Jamie. “I don’t always know how to comfort him and give him that affirmation that things are going to be okay when the same thing keeps happening over and over,” she says. During these moments, the couple often turns to junk food “to satiate the parts of us that are hurting,” Jamie says. They order fast food or even skip dinner altogether and grab ice cream, regardless of being aware of the long-term health consequences of their choices.
It’s been well-documented that discrimination is bad for your health. Recent studies have linked racism to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, while another study found that sexual objectification and fears for physical safety are associated with heightened psychological distress, especially among black women. But now, scientific evidence of what Jamie and Frank experience has begun to surface: A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that the discrimination you experience harms not only your own health, but your romantic partner’s health, too—even if he or she didn’t directly experience the discrimination. And we can probably count on more of that wear and tear. Discrimination seems to be on the rise; the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of reported hate crimes rose two years in a row, coinciding with the Trump campaign and election (2015 and 2016). This hasn’t happened in a decade.
William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, and his colleagues drew inspiration from a 2012 University of California, Los Angeles, study of how racial discrimination influences marital satisfaction among Latinx newlyweds. They wondered whether discrimination could have even more insidious effects. “Maybe [the discrimination experienced by one partner] could be extended to affect their and their partners’ mental health… and even physical health,” Chopik says.
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To find out, Chopik and colleagues analyzed existing data on 1,949 married heterosexual couples ages 50 and older from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. Participants each completed an assessment of their experiences with discrimination, specifying how often they identified with statements like, “You receive poorer service than other people at restaurants or stores” and “People act as if they are afraid of you.” They had also specified what they thought the discrimination could be attributed to, such as their race or gender.
In addition, participants had answered questions about how they would rate their overall health; whether they’ve ever had diabetes, cancer or other chronic diseases; and how often they experienced various depression symptoms. Finally, they were asked to indicate how close they felt to their partners, as well as the levels of relationship strain they experienced, specifying how often their partners got on their nerves or criticized them, for instance.
They found that experiencing discrimination was associated with poorer self-reported health, increased chronic illness and greater depression—but so was having a partner who had experienced discrimination. Although racism, ageism, and sexism were the most common types reported, the associations held up regardless of what form the discrimination took. What’s more, if one partner was experiencing discrimination, his or her partner most likely was, too.
The researchers found that many participants reported more relationship strain when one or both experienced discrimination, which in turn was associated with poorer health. “The discrimination itself isn’t what’s harming the relationship, but rather the stress it causes,” Chopik says. Sharing the discrimination you experienced might stress out your partner, but even if you keep it bottled up, “you might lash out at [him or her].” The resulting drama might lead your partner to make poor health choices, such as Frank and Jamie’s emotional eating. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Chronic stress can also increase the risk of heart attack, diabetes and other health problems (though more research is needed to determine whether this actually plays out long term, Chopik cautions).
Also, the less participants experienced discrimination in their own lives, the more relationship strain they experienced when their partners experienced discrimination. For instance, a white man hearing his black wife vent about racial bias at work might report more relationship strain than a black man. “It might affect [a white man] more because he hasn’t been the subject of racism before,” Chopik says. But some researchers have theorized the opposite, says Brian Feinstein, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. “[Partners’] experiences might feed off each other…. The verdict is still out on how one’s own and one’s partner’s experience can combine to influence health.”
"We really don’t know to what extent these findings generalize to other demographics,” Feinstein says. For starters, the sample included only married, straight couples. Although it did include people of color, most participants were white, many of whom were married to people of color or people who had faced other types of discrimination.
Although it’s not clear whether Chopik’s findings extend to LGBTQ couples, a 2014 study found that for both transgender women and their cis-male partners, experiencing discrimination and perceiving stigma about their relationship were associated with increased depressive symptoms. Feinstein’s research group has also begun looking at how the stress experienced by partners in same-sex male relationships influences relationship functioning and health.
John, who works in San Francisco and identifies as gay, says the workplace homophobia he experiences has affected his mental health, as well as his partner’s. Moments like when his straight male coworkers at his previous job gave him “a cold handshake”—after hugging everyone else in the office—make him anxious and shake his self-confidence, something he already experiences with his partner’s family, who disapproves of their relationship. “It activates my fight or flight,” he says. He wonders whether he should even bring his partner to company events. When he shares the discrimination with his partner, he worries John is ashamed of him. “His confidence and general happiness goes down,” John tells me.
Chopik’s findings challenge the widespread notion that relationships succeed when each partner puts in the work, says Benjamin Karney, professor of social psychology at UCLA and co-author of the study on Latinx newlyweds. “When we think about why a relationship is successful or not, part of the answer is, what’s going outside of the relationship?” In reality, “a lot of things happen to couples that affect their intimacy—things beyond their control.” Studies have reported a rise in divorce rates when partners experience chronic illness or job loss, for instance. Sure, successful relationships take work, but “they’re also lucky.”
That’s not to say that discrimination dooms relationships. Karney suggests expressing the stress it triggers instead of suppressing it. “[It] often can help you remember, ‘Oh, wait a minute, I’m stressed. My relationship isn’t the problem here,’” he says. Besides letting your partner know what happened, you can check in with him or her if something seems off, which can help you pump the brakes and stop yourself from jumping to the usual conclusions: “You’re in a bad mood. You’re irritating. You suck.”
Feinstein adds that partners often fall into a pattern of relying solely on each other for emotional support. “That can put a lot of stress on the relationship,” he says. He suggests thinking about others in your life you can vent to when you experience discrimination to disperse that burden.
Jamie also turns to her friends and coworkers, many of whom are in interracial relationships, too. “I [realize] it’s not just a ‘me’ thing. It’s people being weird about seeing two people who don’t look alike out together,” she says.
Most research on health risk factors focuses on individual experiences, but Chopik’s findings add to a growing literature showing that when we’re close to someone, their experiences can affect our health, too, Feinstein says. And in today’s political climate, even if someone has experienced little or no discrimination “it’s more likely that friends, partners and other people in their social network are experiencing it.” John agrees. The findings “give a fuller picture of how discrimination affects individuals,” he says. “I think now more than ever we need to be critical of these things.”
*Sources prefer to use only their first names out of concern for facing repercussions for their comments at work.
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