Just shut up! Better to say nothing when loved one is stressed, study finds

WACO, Texas — A new study out of Baylor University has brought some legitimacy to the old saying “less is more.” Researchers say simply refraining from criticism, negativity, and abandonment when a loved one is going through a stressful time is more helpful than attempting to be encouraging or positive.

The Baylor researchers found that negative gestures usually triggered more intense and immediate responses compared to positive gestures. Furthermore, the study indicates that how well a couple copes during trying times depends on individual well-being, not just overall satisfaction in the relationship.

“When people face stressful life events, they are especially sensitive to negative behavior in their relationships, such as when a partner seems to be argumentative, overly emotional, withdrawn or fails to do something that was expected,” explains study author Dr. Keith Sanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience, in a statement. “In contrast, they’re less sensitive to positive behavior — such as giving each other comfort.”

Dr. Sanford and his team say that it is important not to exhibit one behavior in a relationship too often, as that will just lead to less impact over time. For example, if someone is constantly upset, their partner will eventually become apathetic to the condition. People tend to be very sensitive to negative relationship behavior, which means that intermittent negative incidents are enough to produce a “nearly maximum effect on increasing life stress.”

“After negative behavior reaches a certain saturation point, it appears that stress is only minimally affected by further increases in the dose of relationship problems,” Sanford explains.

The study’s authors conducted two assessments of couples going through tough times. The first assessment consisted of 325 couples who had dealt with a stressful event within the past month. These stressful events included: losing a job, a death in the family, and bankruptcy, among others. The second assessment was comprised of 154 people, either married or living with a partner, who were dealing with a major medical issue.

Participants in both studies were asked to recall the past month, and write down a few interactions in their relationships that stuck out to them, along with their feelings on the interactions, and how often they would occur. Participants were also asked questions about their relationship satisfaction, quality of life, and overall well being.

The study focusing on stressful medical events displayed lower instances of negative behavior, leading researchers to theorize that couples dealing with medical situations are less likely to blame each other.

“When people face stressful life events, it’s common to experience both positive and negative behavior in their relationships,” says Sanford. “When the goal is to increase feelings of well-being and lessen stress, it may be more important to decrease negative behavior than to increase positive actions.”

The study is published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

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