Unsupportive Partners Can Increase Elevated Stress Hormone Levels

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Researchers at Binghamton University have uncovered a concerning connection between unsupportive partners and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, potentially leading to worse physical health outcomes.

Led by Professor of Psychology Richard Mattson, the study analyzed 191 heterosexual married couples to investigate the impact of social support and communication skills on cortisol levels.

The study, which focused on the giving and receiving of social support within relationships, found that couples who displayed positive support skills tended to experience lower cortisol levels.

Conversely, when partners exhibited negative communication skills or provided support in a rejecting manner, cortisol levels increased, indicating heightened stress levels.

During the study, couples engaged in two 10-minute sessions where they discussed personal issues unrelated to their marriages. Researchers observed their communication patterns and evaluated both positive and negative social support given and received. Additionally, participants provided saliva samples to measure cortisol levels before and after the interactions.

Professor Mattson highlighted the significance of the findings, noting that wives who received negative support felt less understood, validated, and cared for by their partners, leading to an amplification of stress levels. Conversely, positive support skills from partners resulted in couples feeling more understood, validated, and cared for, ultimately contributing to lower cortisol levels.

Surprisingly, the study also revealed that biological stress levels prior to the interactions accurately predicted how couples would perceive and respond to the interactions. Partner responsiveness, measured by feelings of understanding, value, and care, also played a significant role in shaping couples’ behavior and perception during the interactions.

Hayley Fivecoat, the lead author of the study, emphasized the importance of understanding how perceptions of support interactions influence overall relationship dynamics and individual well-being. She highlighted the need for future research to explore different strategies for assessing support behavior and communication methods, suggesting that tone may be more relevant than content.

Additionally, the study authors recommended including couples from diverse backgrounds in future research to ensure broader applicability of the findings. While the current study focused on heterosexual relationships, future studies may explore support dynamics in couples of varying gender identities and sexual orientations.

Looking ahead, researchers plan to incorporate standardized stressors before support communication exercises in future studies to further examine the impact of partner support on stress response systems. By gaining a deeper understanding of effective support behaviors and their effects on stress levels, researchers hope to provide valuable insights into strengthening relationships and promoting individual well-being.

In summary, the study underscores the importance of positive support dynamics in relationships and their potential implications for physical health. By fostering supportive communication skills, couples can mitigate stress levels and cultivate healthier, more resilient partnerships.


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