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Men and women who are about to become parents have different hormonal stress reactions to conflict in their relationship, according to a new study, which found men generally have high levels of stress after disputes, while some women might find the airing of differences reassuring.
For the study, a team of researchers from Penn State University recruited 138 heterosexual couples expecting their first baby (82 percent were married). The expectant parents separately answered questionnaires about their well-being and relationship experiences.
Then, in their own homes, each couple was video-recorded during two six-minute conversations in which they talked about something unrelated to their relationship. Next, each couple was recorded while talking about three problems in their relationship, such as money and housework.
The researchers collected three saliva samples from each participant to measure their levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the interview. They took an initial baseline sample before any of the interactions, a second sample immediately after the so-called "conflict discussion" and a third sample 20 minutes after that to measure recovery following the stressful conversation.
Greater hostility in the conflict discussion seemed to boost levels of cortisol in men, the researchers found, but such a pattern was not observed in women. (The team noted that women's cortisol levels are already high during pregnancy, which could explain those results.)
Men who reported an already high level of anxiety were slower to recover after a conflict discussion, while women with high anxiety had an easier time bouncing back from a particularly heated conversation, the researchers found. The same was true for women who reported high levels of chronic arguments in their relationship.
"For generally anxious men, more expressed hostility was also linked to more persistence of this elevated stress," Penn State researcher Mark Feinberg said in a statement. "On the other hand, generally anxious women experienced relatively more prolonged stress when there were lower levels of negativity and hostility expressed during the discussion."
That might sound counterintuitive, but Feinberg said anxious women, and women in relationships filled with chronic arguing, might find the airing of differences as a reassurance that the couple is engaged with each other.
"This may be particularly important for women during the vulnerable period of their first pregnancy," Feinberg said in a statement. "It would be useful for couples to understand that they need to carefully balance the apparently beneficial effects that discussing difficult relationship topics had for some women with the apparently negative effects it has on some men."
The findings appeared in the British Journal of Psychology last week.