Men and women about to expect their first child together have been found to have significantly different physiological reactions to relationship conflict, according to a study done by researchers at Penn State’s Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development
“Past research has shown that couples conflict can impact people’s health, so we’re trying to understand a little bit more about the pathways through which couples conflict gets under the skin,” said principal investigator Mark Feinberg, who was responsible for conceptualizing the study, as well as overseeing its execution.
Damon Jones, a senior research associate at the center who was involved with the study, said researchers were concerned with attempting to understand how couples cope with stress in critical periods of their lives.
In order to accomplish this, the 138 heterosexual couples that participated in the study first completed questionnaires assessing the nature of their relationship and their own characteristics.
The couples then engaged in two conversations, one about a neutral topic and one about a topic known to cause conflict in the relationship. Researchers collected saliva samples before, immediately after and 20 minutes after each interaction.
Researchers also analyzed the cortisol levels in each sample. The levels were used as a gauge of how each individual responded to the stress of the situation.
The analysis revealed significant differences in the physiological reactions of men and women to relationship stress. Generally, more hostile conflict correlated with higher stress levels in men, but not necessarily in women.
Men with high anxiety levels also recovered from their stress more slowly than women with high anxiety levels did. These women instead, felt more stress when hostility levels were lowered.
“One implication [of these findings] is that people should take seriously the idea that conflict in relationships affects their health,” Feinberg said. “We know that cortisol is a marker for the body’s stress response system activation, and if that system is activated too frequently, you could have chronically high levels of physiological stress, or that system can get burnt out.”
Jones said the investigation is crucial to understanding how physiological symptoms of stress can impact people at important stages in their life, and prove why it is essential for parents to learn how to manage conflict. The findings might also allow for interventions to alleviate stress.
“Maybe we can understand if there are characteristics of people, such as high anxiety levels, that might be valuable in making these associations, so that people can intervene to help parents at these crucial stages to help development of the child and the relationship,” Jones said.
Research into this topic however, is far from over.
“We hope to connect how social relationships relate to these biological changes, and we hope to connect these biological changes to the big picture, and why some have worse reactions than other exposed to the same situations,” Doug Granger, a former Penn State faculty member who was also involved with conducting the study and now works at Johns Hopkins University, said.
Feinberg said he also thinks more steps need to be taken to fully research the issue.
“I think there’s just a lot in this research to look at, and it’s deserving of more research,” Feinberg said. “It’s hard to completely understand the nature of conflict within families within a setting like this, but I certainly think that it can inform future research and look at the importance of different associations.”