No surprise: having a responsive partner linked to lower stress levels

An unusual study of heterosexual couples in the US has declared that couples feel more understood, validated and and cared for when their partners show positive support skills.

Not only that, they feel less understood when subject to negative communication skills.

These emotions are increasingly referred to as ‘Perceived Partner Response’ (PPR) – feeling understood, valued and cared for.

In fact the researchers could measure the build up of cortisol, the stress hormone, as these negative interactions took place.

The research is in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

“Our research more strongly showed how perceptions of support interactions shape our experience,” says lead author Hayley Fivecoat, who developed the study as a graduate student at Binghamton University in the US and is now a clinical research psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. 

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

Fivecoat and collaborators studied 185 married heterosexual couples from the US in experiments, couples were brought together for two 10 minute discussion sessions. Each spouse was asked to discuss with their partner something (unrelated to their relationship) that they would like to work on or change about themselves.

Prior to and following each interaction, researchers collected saliva samples to measure cortisol levels and administered questionnaires to measure perceived partner responsiveness (PPR).

The concept of PPR – feeling understood, valued and cared for – has become of increasing interest to researchers.

“PPR is rooted in theories of intimacy and is connected to how partners understand and care for the core self, and is one of many ways partners might evaluate partner support,” the authors write.

“Ratings of PPR are influenced by a partners’ self-reported actions, as well as internal perceptions of one’s own responsiveness that get projected onto the partner, which both positively predict relationship outcomes.”

Richard Mattson, professor of psychology at Bingham University in the US and co-author of the study says: “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.

Positive support skills included providing specific advice or feedback regarding actions that could be taken; questions aimed toward formulating a plan of action; clarifying feelings; providing reassurance; or showing a willingness to help. Negative communication skills included behaviours such as criticising, withdrawing, or minimising.

Unexpectedly, the researchers also found that cortisol stress levels prior to the interaction appeared to accurately predict how couples would act and perceive the interactions.

“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 behaviours – good or bad – might be viewed in the moment,” says Fivecoat.

“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 researchers recommend these findings be integrated into couple interventions to enhance social support skills, specifically for couples to learn and practice more positive expressions of support in place of more negative tactics.

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