Having An Unsupportive Partner Can Be Horrible For Your Health

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — It’s no secret that a partner doesn’t care can put extra strain on a relationship. Now, researchers at Binghamton University have uncovered a connection between unsupportive partners and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body — which can lead to worse physical health. This association between cortisol and social support in couples suggests couples tend to feel more understood and cared for when both members of the relationship show positive support for each other.

The research team, led by Professor of Psychology Richard Mattson, analyzed 191 heterosexual married couples in an effort to determine if improved communication skills in combination with the giving and receiving of social support may lead to lower cortisol levels. For reference, cortisol is a hormone that has a long-time association with stress.

Over the course of two 10-minute sessions, couples in the study discussed personal issues unrelated to their marriages. Then, researchers analyzed their communication for signs of both positive and negative social support (given and received) and went on to evaluate how participants perceived the support they received. Finally, the study authors also collected saliva samples to gauge cortisol levels.

“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,” says Mattson in a statement. “Couples felt more understood, validated and cared for when their partners showed positive support skills, and less so when they showed negative communication skills.”

Surprisingly, study authors uncovered that biological stress levels prior to these interactions appeared to accurately predict how a couple would act and perceive the interactions. Another predictor of couples’ behavior and perception is their overall perceived partner responsiveness, which is a measurement of feeling understood, valued, and cared for.

Couple experiencing financial stress while reviewing bills
“Couples felt more understood, validated and cared for when their partners showed positive support skills, and less so when they showed negative communication skills,” researchers report. (© Wayhome Studio – stock.adobe.com)

We’ve published no shortage of research showing how high cortisol levels can ruin physical health. Among its ill effects:

Hayley Fivecoat, the lead author of the paper, developed this project during her time as a graduate student at Binghamton. She now works as a clinical research psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

“Our research more strongly showed how perceptions of support interactions shape our experience,” Fivecoat explains. “How each partner perceived the interaction was highly associated with how supportive and responsive they believed the partner to be more generally. 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 behaviors – good or bad – might be viewed in the moment.”

“Alternatively, it is possible that different types of support behaviors are needed for different people experiencing different kinds of problems, and so looking at specific behaviors across couples becomes less relevant. 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.”

Study authors believe a stronger understanding of how couples support each other during stressful times can be a source of invaluable insight into how to strengthen relationships and overall individual well-being. They recommend that future studies employ different strategies to assess support behavior and methods of communication. Researchers add they have reason to believe that tone is often more relevant than the content matter. In other words, it’s not what you say but how you say it.

Moreover, future work should also include different couples with diverse backgrounds. This project only included heterosexual relationships. Study authors plan to use a standardized stressor before the support communication exercise takes place during future studies.

“Lastly, we are also considering looking at alternative ways of measuring stress at the biological level to understand what effective partner support looks like, as cortisol is one of many indicators of our body’s stress response system,” Prof. Mattson concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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