• Having an unsupportive partner can really stress out a relationship – and put a damper on more than your mental health.

Binghamton University researchers have discovered a link between having an unsupportive partner and higher amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. This can actually harm your physical health.

Their findings highlight how couples who support and care for each other tend to have better emotional connections, as shown through lower levels of cortisol, indicating less stress.

Led by Professor Richard Mattson, the team focused on studying 191 straight and married couples to explore whether enhanced communication skills, along with the exchange of social support, could result in decreased levels of cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that’s closely linked to stress over a long period.

During the study, couples engaged in two separate 10-minute discussions about personal topics not related to their marriages.

Afterward, the researchers observed the couples’ interactions for indicators of both positive and negative social support, both given and received.

They also assessed how the participants felt about the support they received. Then, to measure cortisol levels, the researchers collected saliva samples from the participants.

“We found that wives who received support more negatively (e.g., rejecting help) felt less understood, validated, and cared for by a partner, which had a ‘stress-amplifying’ effect, meaning cortisol increased across the interaction,” Mattson explained.

“Couples felt more understood, validated and cared for when their partners showed positive support skills, and less so when they showed negative communication skills.”

Interestingly, the researchers found that the biological stress levels of couples before their interactions could predict their behavior and how they would perceive these interactions.

Another key factor in determining couples’ actions and perceptions was their overall perceived partner responsiveness. This measures how much individuals feel understood, valued, and cared for by their partners.

The study’s lead author, Hayley Fivecoat, initiated this project while she was a graduate student at Binghampton University.

She detailed how this study provided strong evidence that the way we perceive support interactions deeply influences our experience.

According to Fivecoat, the way each partner viewed the interaction was closely linked to their overall impression of the partner’s supportiveness and responsiveness.

It’s possible that these perceptions of a partner’s supportiveness accumulate over time through numerous interactions.

This broader perspective then influences how specific actions, whether positive or negative, are interpreted in any given moment.

“Alternatively, it is possible that different types of support behaviors are needed for different people experiencing different kinds of problems, and so looking at specific behaviors across couples becomes less relevant,” she noted.

“In either case, those who perceived themselves as having a supportive partner in general tended to have the lowest levels of cortisol at baseline and following the interaction.”

So, the researchers argue that gaining a deeper understanding of how couples provide support to each other during stress can offer crucial insights into ways to enhance both relationships and individual well-being.

Additionally, the researchers highlight the importance of tone over content, suggesting that the manner in which something is said may be more significant than the actual words used.


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