Stress-hormone production and health: the importance of forgiveness

When they are functioning well, intimate relationships contribute to better health and increased longevity. A cornerstone of well-functioning relationships is the ability to forgive a partner for relationship transgressions, such as telling lies, flirting with another person, or saying hurtful things. Repairing a relationship following the hurtful actions of one partner has consequences, not only for relationship quality, but also for physical health. One way that the act of forgiveness may be associated with health relates to cortisol production. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland during times of stress. Chronic elevations of cortisol have negative effects on cardiovascular, immune, and brain systems and potentially increase the risk for diabetes, hypertension, immune system deficiency, and other illnesses. Being unforgiving has been shown to produce cortisol in a similar pattern to that which is experienced during other stress responses. Kim Watt is examining whether cortisol production is a mechanism for the link between forgiveness and general physical health. She is conducting her study with 200 newlywed couples, recording their physical health and measuring their cortisol levels at baseline and following a set of emotionally stressful marital discussions. Results from this study will contribute to a clearer understanding of the risk pathways by which negative relationship processes may lead to poor physical health. This may suggest that a focus on strengthening close relationships by improving couples' skills when discussing relationship issues is a way of ultimately reducing health problems.