Saying "encountering discrimination is psychologically hard" is kind of like saying "water is wet." We have a lot of scientific proof about how many different types of discrimination, from sexism to racism to ableism, affect their targets negatively. Researchers have linked discrimination to everything from higher risk of cardiovascular disease to depression and overall mortality. Harassment, bullying and the threat of violence are also linked to psychological distress, which has pretty terrible mental health consequences in the long term, from hyper vigilance to stress disorders. But one new study has revealed an unexpected consequence: if you're the target of discrimination, not only do you suffer, but so does your romantic partner.
The study comes from Michigan State researchers, and will be published shortly in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science — and it's an intriguing new look at the consequences of encountering intolerance and bigotry. The scientists looked at 1,949 couples (3,898 people in all) and found a thread that links one partner's experiences with the other partner's peace of mind.
This outcome — the finding, as the researchers put it, "that one person’s experiences of discrimination were associated with mental, physical, and relational health outcomes in their partner" — is pretty new, and surprised the researchers themselves. "The link between discrimination and health has the been the subject of a lot of research in the past," the study's author, Professor William Chopik, tells Bustle. "But thinking that it could affect our spouses, who don't even experience the discrimination themselves, was really surprising."
The couples were asked to identify how they encountered discrimination in everyday life via a 5-point survey that they could answer on a sliding scale, with these statements: “You are treated with less courtesy or respect than other people,” “You receive poorer service than other people at restaurants or stores,” “People act as if they think you are not smart,” “People act as if they are afraid of you,” and “You are threatened or harassed.” There was space for people to identify what kinds of discrimination they were encountering, from racism to ableism, and whether they were intersecting. This was paired with their answers to a variety of questions on how healthy they were, whether they had chronic health issues or depression, and how they viewed their romantic relationship's stress levels and closeness.
Unsurprisingly, being discriminated against was linked to feeling less healthy and more depressed, and having a more stressful relationship. But the results also highlighted that if your partner was experiencing discrimination, you were more likely to feel unhealthy, be depressed and feel more strain in the relationship, too. And if one person was feeling discriminated against, chances were high that the other partner was experiencing it in their everyday lives, too.
The researchers have a few ideas about why encountering discrimination and bullying might make for a worse time for your partner or spouse. "We explored one reason why," Chopik tells Bustle — "that it negatively affects our relationships at home. That finding made it a little more understandable for how it could be possible." Running the gamut of racism, sexism and other prejudices every day, in their view, may hurt relationships because people might disclose their experiences to their partners and stress them out, or externalize their feelings by being aggressive or closed-off.
The study found that the effects seemed to be the same regardless of the type of discrimination being experienced: racism, in particular, didn't seem to cause greater problems. But the subjects were 83.7 percent Caucasian, 8.1 percent African American, 6.4 percent Hispanic and 1.8 percent other, so it's probable that bigger studies need to be done on how experiences of racism in particular might affect relationships. Additionally, the sample of people included people aged 50 to 94, so this research doesn't necessarily apply to younger people and their relationships.
This is an important addition to the current societal fights against discrimination in all its forms, from #MeToo to the Black Lives Matter movement — because when we talk about bigotry and its impact, we're not just talking about individuals, or about society in general. We're also talking about relationships and families, and the true extent to which discrimination can be personally poisonous. Harassment, bullying and being treated as inferior don't stop at the front door; we bring these things home with us, and they affect us in the most personal of ways.