Positive Partner Support Tied to Stress Relief

Summary: Positive support from partners in a relationship can significantly reduce stress, as indicated by cortisol levels. Analyzing communication between 191 married couples, the research found that individuals felt more validated and cared for when their partners provided positive support, leading to lower cortisol levels.

The study highlights the importance of how support is perceived, showing that those who generally view their partner as supportive experience lower stress levels. These findings underscore the role of communication in managing stress within relationships and pave the way for further research on effective support behaviors.

Key Facts:

  1. Positive social support from a partner is linked to lower stress levels, evidenced by reduced cortisol.
  2. Perception of support plays a critical role; individuals who view their partner as generally supportive tend to have lower baseline stress levels.
  3. The study suggests the way support is communicated (tone) may be more impactful than the content of the communication.

Source: Binghamton University

Couples feel more understood and cared for when their partners show positive support skills – and it’s evidenced by levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body – according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York. 

A team of Binghamton University researchers including Professor of Psychology Richard Mattson conducted a study of 191 heterosexual married couples to find out if better communication skills while giving and receiving social support led to lower cortisol levels – a hormone associated with stress reactions.

This shows a happy couple.
Essentially, it might matter how you say it, more than what you say. Credit: Neuroscience News

Over two 10-minute sessions, the couples discussed personal issues unrelated to their marriage. The researchers analyzed their communication for instances of both positive and negative social support given and received, evaluated how the participants perceived the support they received and gathered samples of saliva to assess cortisol levels.

“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,” said Mattson.

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

Unexpectedly, the researchers found that biological stress levels prior to the interaction appeared to accurately predict how couples would act and perceive the interactions. Another predictor of couples’ behavior and perception was their overall perceived partner responsiveness, which is an assessment of feeling understood, valued and cared for.

Hayley Fivecoat, the lead author of the paper, developed this study during her time as a graduate student at Binghamton. She is now a clinical research psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. 

“Our research more strongly showed how perceptions of support interactions shape our experience,” Fivecoat said.

“How each partner perceived the interaction was highly associated with how supportive and responsive they believed the partner to be more generally.

“One possibility is that perceptions of how supportive a partner is can build over time and across several interactions; and the more general picture shapes how particular behaviors – good or bad – might be viewed in the 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.

“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.” 

The authors believe understanding how couples navigate and support each other in stressful situations can offer valuable insights into strengthening relationships and overall well-being. 

Future studies will employ different strategies to assess support behavior and how it is communicated. The authors have a reason to believe that the tone of what was said was more relevant than the content matter. Essentially, it might matter how you say it, more than what you say.

Additionally, further research will examine different couples with diverse backgrounds, as this study only covered heterosexual relationships. Researchers will also use a standardized stressor before the support communication exercise takes place.

“Lastly, we are also considering looking at alternative ways of measuring stress at the biological level to understand what effective partner support looks like, as cortisol is one of many indicators of our body’s stress response system,” Mattson said.

Binghamton psychology faculty Nicole Cameron and Matthew Johnson also contributed to the paper.

About this stress and relationships research news

Author: John Brhel
Source: Binghamton University
Contact: John Brhel – Binghamton University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Social support and perceived partner responsiveness have complex associations with salivary cortisol in married couples” by Richard Mattson et al. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships


Social support and perceived partner responsiveness have complex associations with salivary cortisol in married couples

Spousal support may help ameliorate the health consequences of stressful situations by downregulating cortisol.

To examine how cortisol levels change in conjunction with spousal social support during discussions of a stressful situation, 191 married couples engaged in two 10-minute interactions addressing a personal (i.e., non-marital) problem.

We coded for positive and negative social support provision and receipt, assessed the perception of received support, and collected salivary cortisol samples.

We found that wives’ display of more negative behaviors while receiving support was associated with an increase in wives’ cortisol levels via an indirect (mediated) effect of perceived partner responsiveness.

Overall, results suggest a link between support behaviors, changes in cortisol and perceived partner responsiveness, with more consistent links between support behaviors and responsiveness ratings relative to other paths, and cortisol effects found more often in wives than husbands.

Exploratory analyses also suggest that cortisol levels coming into an interaction may impact elements of support interactions. The implications of the role of cortisol and partner responsiveness to the provision of spousal support are discussed.

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