A new study shows that in challenging situations, our partners can be better at finding a silver lining than we are.
Researchers at the University of California-Riverside note that partners can help positively reframe a bad situation, relieving stress in everything from dealing with an illness to everyday stressors.
Previous studies have shown that women with breast cancer who engage in positive reframing not only have less distress, but may even find some benefit in the experience. Researchers postulated that finding support from a romantic partner helps those women find that silver lining.
For the current study, 52 couples coping with breast cancer wore an “Electronically Activated Recorder” (EAR) over one weekend to record 50 seconds every nine minutes during their waking days. After the couples’ weekend with the EAR device, researchers looked at the degree to which word use indicated positive reframing and successful coping, or the reduction of stress.
Of the thousands of sound files collected, researchers found participants were speaking about 46 percent of the time. About 4 percent of “talking” sound files were about cancer. Research assistants were asked to examine these files and look for instances in which someone appeared to be changing a negative view into a positive one.
Additionally, the couples were asked to self-report their positive reframing (for example, when experiencing a stressful event, “I look for something good in what is happening”), and their stress levels.
According to researchers, the study’s findings affirmed that spouses can help with coping by positively reframing the cancer experience and other negative experiences. In general, positive reframing was associated with less stress, the study discovered.
“Word use can be a window into people’s thoughts and feelings without having to directly ask them. Positive emotion words, like ‘happy’ or ‘calm,’ can indicate what someone is feeling, and cognitive processing words, like ‘think’ or ‘because,’ reveal that someone is processing a thought,” said Dr. Megan Robbins, a psychology professor at UCR and author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology.
“It’s possible that spouses’ positive emotion and cognitive processing words indicated that they were helping patients see a new, more positive perspective on cancer.”
Robbins said it’s likely that spouses who can help reframe a topic as “heavy” as cancer in a more positive light may be able to do the same for everyday stressors.
Why are partners better at finding silver linings? Robbins said it may be because the partner who doesn’t have cancer has more resources, like energy. It could even be due to a gender effect, she said, noting men are more likely to positively reframe cancer than women, although more research is needed to confirm that.
“Interventions should focus on patients and spouses, as coping can be a social activity,” Robbins said. “These interventions should stress the importance of active and appropriate coping strategies to both the patient and their potentially less distressed partner.”