Study Upturns What It Means to Be a Supportive Spouse
When dealing with an emotionally stressed partner — one who has experienced the death of a loved one, say, or the loss of a job — it’s often the instinct of the other to focus on giving positive emotional support. But new research out of Baylor University suggests that what’s more important than providing positive interaction, for an overwhelmed partner, is minimizing the small, negative ones.
“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to negative behavior in their relationships, such as when a partner seems to be argumentative, overly emotional, withdrawn or fails to do something that was expected,” says researcher Keith Sanford, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Because people are especially sensitive to negative relationship behavior, a moderate dose may be sufficient to produce a nearly maximum effect on increasing life stress.”
Sanford and co-researcher Alannah Shelby Rivers, a doctoral candidate in psychology and neuroscience, found stressed partners became more stressed and responded more intensely and immediately to these types of negative behaviors in a partner, than they calmed or warmed in response to positive exchanges.
“In contrast, [stressed partners are] less sensitive to positive behavior — such as giving each other comfort,” he said.
Which means being a supportive spouse to a burdened partner might be more about refraining from actions that could pile onto the emotional stress, than it is about about positive gestures that distract or cheer.
Sanford and Rivers arrived at this finding by conducting two studies. The first surveyed hundreds of married or cohabiting couples who had experienced at least one of the following list of major stressors: lost a job, became a primary caregiver of an older relative, experienced a parent’s death, experienced a child’s death, lacked enough resources to afford basic necessities, and/or experienced bankruptcy, foreclosure or repossession of a house or car. The second study looked at couples who had experienced illness-related stress from either a condition requiring hospitalization or a trip to the emergency room, a serious chronic condition, and/or a life-threatening condition.
Couples in both studies reflected on the types of interaction they had had with their spouse in the months after through a ranking system, as well as through more qualitative, open feedback. Participants were also asked about their coping strategies, both as individuals and within their relationship.
“When people face stressful life events, it’s common to experience both positive and negative behavior in their relationships,” Sanford said. “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.”