Close Relationships Laboratory


Relationships, Biology & Health



Our lab investigates how marital relationships and parent-child relationships influence stress biology and health. Our research examines two main biological processes: regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis -- which produces the stress hormone cortisol -- and immune responses to psychological stress. Several lines of research have shown that stressful social relationships are bad for your health. However, very little is known about the psychological and physiological processes that explain relationship-health links. 


Mariage and Health

Our work in this area primarily focuses on the health consequences of family relationships. Family stressors include marital conflict, work stress that people carry home with them from the office, parent-child conflict, and so on. We recently completed a year-long EAR study of 44 families in which we assessed diurnal cortisol and collected diary and EAR data (Slatcher, Robles, Repetti, & Fellows, 2010). We are finding, for example, that work stress affects not only people's own cortisol but also affects spouses' cortisol. For wives, it's not all bad news: work stress only appears to affect women who are either unhappy in their marriage or don't open up about their thoughts and feelings to their spouses. This study is the first to our knowledge to show that momentary feelings of stress affect close others’ cortisol levels. We also have shown that conflict at home measured by the EAR recording device (which allows us to actually hear what goes on when people are at home together) is linked to less "healthy" stress hormone production in young children (see Slatcher & Robles, 2012).

Family Relationships and Health

Building on this work, we investigated the links between parent-child relationships and physical health in late childhood and early adolescence. In collaboration with Ted Robles at UCLA, we conducted an 8-week daily diary study of the biological mechanisms underlying how family environments influence susceptibility to upper respiratory-tract infections (URIs). 

We also have an ongoing longitudinal study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NHLBI R01HL114097) investigating the effects of family environments on childhood asthma among 10-15 year-olds in Detroit. Participants in this study wear the EAR, complete daily diary measures, laboratory assessments of family functioning, immunological and epigenetic measures, and clinical asthma evaluations. We are following participants for three waves of data collection over two years, which will allow us to examine how changes in family behaviors over time are linked to changes in asthma symptom severity and pulmonary functioning and identify key biological and psychological pathways that may help explain the links between family relationships and asthma. We are finding, for example, that family conflict coded from the EAR is associated with flatter (less "healthy") diurnal cortisol slopes, greater wheezing in daily life and more frequent emergency visits, whereas EAR-coded positive parenting behaviors (e.g., actively listening to the child, positive talk by the parent) are associated with steeper ("healthier") diurnal cortisol slopes.

Racial Health Disparities

In an NIH-funded project (1R03NR013249) with Nao Hagiwara at VCU and Lou Penner at Wayne State, we are conducting linguistic analyses (using LIWC) on videotaped interactions between black patients and non-black physicians. With this project, we hope to uncover why some black patients are more vulnerable to health disparities than others. Findings will inform the development of future interventions to improve the quality of medical interactions and the health of vulnerable populations.

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