Men and women who are expectant parents have different stress reactions to relationship conflict, according to new research.
Researchers at Penn State, who studied couples expecting their first child, also found that recovery from the initial reaction to conflict also is different for men and women, with many factors in play, such as anxiety or chronic problems in the relationship.
“Hostility and negativity in a relationship has been shown to have a major impact on mental health and the future well being of the couple,” said Dr. Mark Feinberg, research professor in the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State.
“It is especially important to understand how relationship conflict may affect stress during pregnancy, as maternal stress has been linked to health problems for both the mother and child. And men who have difficulty dealing with stress could end up reacting angrily to future disagreements, which could affect the quality of the relationship, parent-child relations and children’s adjustment.”
The researchers recruited 138 heterosexual couples expecting their first child to participate in the study. In their own homes, the expectant parents â€” 82 percent of them married â€” separately completed questionnaires regarding their relationship experiences and individual qualities, attitudes and well-being.
Interviewers videotaped two six-minute interactions of each couple discussing something not related to the relationship. Next, the couples were asked to discuss three problems in their relationship, such as money and housework.
During the interviews, the researchers collected three saliva samples from each of the participants to measure the amount of cortisol. They collected the first baseline sample prior to videotaping the interactions among the participants. They collected the second sample after the conflict discussion and they collected the third sample 20 minutes later to assess whether cortisol levels had gone back down, indicating recovery from the stress of the conflict.
The researchers found that, in men, greater hostility in a discussion led to increased levels of cortisol, indicating greater physiological stress. The same pattern was not found for women. However, the researchers noted this may be due to the fact that women’s cortisol levels are already high during pregnancy.
In examining the participants’ recovery to conflict, men with a high level of anxiety recovered less, whereas women with high anxiety recovered more. The same pattern was found for men and women who reported low versus high levels of chronic, unresolved relationship conflict.
“We found that all men appeared to find hostility stressful,” said Feinberg. “For generally anxious men, more expressed hostility was also linked to more persistence of this elevated stress. On the other hand, generally anxious women experienced relatively more prolonged stress when there were lower levels of negativity and hostility expressed during the discussion.
“We speculate that these anxious women, as well as women in relationships in which chronic arguing is a feature, find the airing of differences, even when the tone turns negative, to be reassuring that the couple is engaged with each other. This may be particularly important for women during the vulnerable period of their first pregnancy.
“It would be useful for couples to understand that they need to carefully balance the apparently beneficial effects that discussing difficult relationship topics had for some women with the apparently negative effects it has on some men.”
The National Institutes of Health provided funding for this research, which was published in the British Journal of Psychology.
Source: Penn State