For couples about to have their first baby, researchers have found that men and women have different hormonal stress reactions to conflict within the relationship.
Men were found to have high levels of stress after disputes, while women bounced back quickly after talking about differences.
A team of researchers from Penn State University in the US recruited 138 heterosexual couples expecting their first child. Of the group, 82 percent were married.
All of the subjects answered questionnaires about their relationship and well-being, while the couples were videotaped in their home during two six-minute conversations during which they chatted about random topics. Then researchers recorded the couple talking about conflicts in the relationships, such as money or housework problems. At several points during the interviews, researchers took saliva samples from the subjects to measure the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Men were found to have high levels of cortisol in the conflict discussion and lower levels during the neutral conversations, while women didn't show similar patterns. One explanation the researchers noted is that pregnant women already have higher levels of cortisol.
Men with high levels of anxiety were slow to recover from a conflict, while women with high anxiety bounced back more quickly. "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."
But researchers found that both anxious women and women in relationships in which chronic arguing is a feature felt the airing of difference, even when the tone turns negative, to be reassuring.
"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."