Interaction Quality and Stress in Marriages
Researchers in Germany recently examined how the quality of interactions in couples is related to the stress the couples experience in their marriages. One aspect of stress that they focused on was the level of cortisol, a stress hormone, after marital interactions. Higher levels of cortisol indicate higher levels of stress. Other researchers have found that people tend to show more physiological signs of stress after marital conflicts, but the results associated with cortisol levels have been inconsistent. An explanation that was offered in the present investigation is that whether cortisol levels rise after a marital conflict depends on the quality of interactions between the couples.
Eighty couples were videotaped discussing a marital conflict and subsequently grouped according to their interaction style. In the negative interaction group, both partners exhibited negative behaviors around 40% of the time. In the positive interaction group, both partners exhibited negative behaviors around 20% of the time. In the asymmetric interaction group, one partner was positive and one was negative. Examples of negative verbal behaviors include criticizing, negative solutions, justification, and disagreement. Examples of positive verbal behaviors include self-disclosure, positive solutions, acceptance of others, and agreement. During the sessions, saliva samples were taken to determine cortisol levels. The participants also filled out a variety of questionnaires.
Overall, men had higher cortisol levels in anticipation of the marital conflict and women had higher cortisol levels in response to the conflict. The couples in the positive interaction group but not those in the negative interaction group showed the expected increase in cortisol levels in response to the marital conflict. Women in the asymmetric group also showed the expected increase.
The researchers offered a reason for why the couples in the negative interaction group did not show the expected increase in cortisol levels in response to the marital conflict. The researcher argued that because those couples have had many unresolved conflicts from fruitless discussions in the past and probably have grown accustom to such conflict, the marital conflict seemed like a chronic source of stress, any given instance of which not necessarily warranting an extra increase in cortisol.
Consequently, these results support the idea that marital conflicts do result in increased stress, unless the couples are so used to such conflicts that they see them as the norm.
Source: Fehm-Wolfsdorf, G., Groth, T., Kaiser, A., Hahlweg, K. (1999). Cortisol responses to marital conflict depend on marital interaction quality. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 6, 207-227.