Relationship stress and expectant parents

A new study on the physiological effects of stress has found that expectant parents respond differently to arguments depending on the presence of ongoing individual or relationship difficulties such as anxiety or chronic relationship conflict.

The study by Mark Feinberg and Damon Jones from Pennsylvania State University published online in the British Journal of Psychology today, Friday 12 October, examined whether anxiety or chronic relationship difficulties altered the way that a 12-minute couple conflict discussion affected partners' cortisol levels.*

Mark Feinberg said: "Relationship conflict has been shown to have a major impact on partners' mental health and well being. It's especially important to understand how relationship conflict may affect stress during pregnancy as maternal stress has previously been linked to health problems for both the mother and child. And men who have difficulty dealing with stress could end up reacting angrily to future disagreements, affecting the quality of the relationship, parent-child relations, and children's adjustment."

As expected, greater hostility in a conflict discussion led to increased levels of cortisol, indicating greater physiological stress, for men. However, the same relation was not found for women - which may be due to the fact that pregnant women's cortisol levels are already high.

One hundred and thirty eight heterosexual couples expecting their first child (82 per cent were married) took part in the study. In their own home, expectant parents separately completed questionnaires regarding their relationship experiences and individual qualities, attitudes, and well-being. Interviewers videotaped two 6-minute interactions of each couple discussing something not related to their relationship. Next the couples were asked to discuss three problems in their relationship (such as money and housework).

During the home interview, three cortisol samples were taken (from saliva). A baseline sample was taken first before the videotaped interactions, the second was taken after the conflict discussion to examine reactivity-that is, whether cortisol levels increased due to the conflict discussion. The third sample was taken 20 minutes after the second sample to assess whether levels of cortisol had gone back down as they typically do after a brief stressor, indicating recovery from the stress of the conflict.

One finding established how anxious men and women reacted differently to arguing: hostility during the conflict discussion led to less cortisol recovery for men, but more cortisol recovery for women. The same pattern was found for men and women who reported high levels of chronic, unresolved relationship conflict.

Mark Feinberg explained: "We found that generally anxious men appeared to find hostility stressful and this elevated stress persisted for a longer period of time. 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. We speculate that these anxious women, as well as women in relationships of chronic arguing, find the airing of differences, even when the tone turns negative, to be reassuring that the couple is engaged with each other. This may be particular important for women during the vulnerable period of first pregnancy."

Mark Feinberg added: "It would be useful for couples to understand that they need to carefully balance the apparently beneficial effects of discussing difficult relationship topics for some women with the apparently negative effect for some men."

*Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress and high levels of cortisol may have long-term negative effects on health.