Posted 02.15.2016 | by AMRA

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All romantic relationships have conflicts, and resolving them requires couples to remain calm and open as they explore their differences. This is easier said than done when couples are stressed and not always on their best behavior. Can mindfulness protect us from the stress resulting from negative behaviors during disagreements? Laurent, et al. [Hormones and Behavior] investigated the relationship between state mindfulness, the stress hormone cortisol, and negative conflict behavior in couples who were discussing their differences.

The researchers recruited 88 heterosexual couples (predominantly Caucasian, average age = 21) who were in a relationship for at least 2 months, and had them engage in a 1hour 45 minute long discussion of an unresolved relationship conflict. The researchers wanted a sample of the couples’ behaviors so that the hormonal and attitudinal correlates of those behaviors could be studied. The discussions were taped and coded for control, coerciveness, anger, negativity/conflict, verbal aggression, and emotional withdrawal.

After the discussion, partners completed the Toronto Mindfulness Scale, a measure of state mindfulness comprised of Curiosity (an attitude of openness towards experience) and Decentering (dis-identifying with experience). The researchers also drew five salivary cortisol samples at fixed time intervals before and after the relationship conflict discussions. Cortisol data was analyzed in terms of overall reactivity (a measure of stress intensity) and slope of recovery (a measure of how long it takes to return to normal after stress).

When women were confronted with partner attempts at control, coercion, and negativity/conflict, their cortisol levels took significantly longer to return to normal if they reported low levels of Curiosity. The less they adopted a stance of friendly curiosity towards their experience, the longer their bodies continued to register signs of stress.

When men were confronted with partner emotional withdrawal, their cortisol levels took significantly longer to return to normal if they reported low levels of Decentering. Their bodies took longer to recover from stress when they failed to gain distance from their thoughts and feelings.

Mindfulness had no effect on cortisol recovery from verbal aggression, the most severe negative behavior measured for either men or women. Findings suggest that while mindfulness may help cope with mild negative behaviors, it is less protective against more severe forms of relationship conflict. Mindfulness didn’t moderate the overall intensity of stress response to these milder negative behaviors, but it did speed up the rate of recovery from them.

The study supports a role for heightened state mindfulness in helping couples recover from stress hormone reactivity during romantic conflict. The results may be of use in teaching couples mindfulness skills to better cope with mild-to-moderate relationship conflict in a manner that could have biological significance.

Caution should be taken in generalizing these results to more severe relationship problems as this was a normal healthy cohort. In addition, a very large number of significance tests were performed in the course of this analysis, raising the possibility of spurious findings and the need for replication.

Reference:

Laurent, H. K., Hertz, R., Nelson, B., & Laurent, S. M. (2016). Mindfulness during romantic conflict moderates the impact of negative partner behaviors on cortisol responses. Hormones and Behavior.

[Link to abstract]