Discrimination is a common experience for many people, taking its toll on their mental and physical well-being. Not surprisingly, people who experience more discrimination report more depressive symptoms and worse health outcomes. However, research conducted by my research team suggests that the negative effects don’t stop there. Discrimination can also be harmful to the people who are in relationships with the person who was discriminated against, such as their romantic partner. These indirect ways of experiencing discrimination are called vicarious discrimination experiences.

But how can one person’s experience affect another person who didn’t experience it firsthand? One way this can happen is that the stress we experience in one context, such as at work, often spills over to affect us in another context, such as in our home life. For example, we have all experienced really stressful times at work. This stress can drain us emotionally and physically, and it might make us a little more irritable, so that our patience runs a little thin. These effects of stress in one domain continue to haunt us after we leave work and color our interactions with our friends, family, and partners.

The same process likely happens with discrimination. People who are targets of discrimination carry that stress with them, and it begins to affect other areas of their lives, such as their close relationships.

To test this idea, we examined the discrimination experiences of 1,949 couples from the Health and Retirement Study. The two partners in each couple answered questions about their experiences with discrimination. For example, people reported if they felt they received poorer service than others at restaurants and stores and if they felt threatened or harassed. People also reported on why they thought they were discriminated against, whether it was due to their age, gender, race, ethnicity, or some other reason.  Finally, participants answered questions about their relationship, physical health, and psychological well-being.

First, we found what previous research has shown: discrimination was bad for people’s mental and physical health. People who reported more frequent discrimination reported worse health, more chronic health conditions (such as heart attacks and strokes), and more depressive symptoms than those who did not experience discrimination as often.

But the more surprising result was that one person’s experiences with discrimination affected their partner’s health and well-being as well. Being married to someone who experienced a good deal of discrimination was associated with worse health and more depression! When we examined why being married to someone who experiences discrimination is so bad for people, we found that the impact of one person’s experiences of discrimination on the partner’s health is explained by the negative effects of stress on close  relationships. In other words, stress can “spill over” from one context to others. Experiencing more discrimination was associated with more relationship conflict, which in turn led to poorer health and greater depression for the partner.

So, experiencing discrimination might not only hurt people who are discriminated against.  It might also hurt their relationship and their partner as well. My research team is working on learning more about exactly why this happens and some potential ways in which we can stop discrimination from wreaking havoc on our relationships. One way to prevent these effects might be to recognize how stress is making us behave differently toward our partners. Other ways might include helping couples communicate more effectively when they are under stress. To build on our findings, we need to study couples who experience discrimination over time and identify other variables that might make discrimination less harmful both for people and their relationships.

Our study clearly shows that discrimination can be a particularly insidious form of stressful experience—one that bleeds over into our closest relationships, affecting not only the individual but also his or her partner.

For Further Reading:
Wofford, N. E., Defever, A. M., & Chopik, W. J. (2019). The vicarious effects of discrimination: How partner experiences of discrimination affect individual health. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10, 121-130.

William J. Chopik is an assistant professor at Michigan State University who studies how relationships—and the people in them—change over time and across the lifespan.