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15 August 2000
Loving Relationships Good For Health
by George Atkinson

It has been known that unpleasant encounters can evoke strong physiological reactions and can be harmful to one's health if exposed to them over a long period of time. But, will pleasant interactions have the opposite effect: be good for your health? In a new study, hormonal changes that indicated a person's stress level were examined in positive relationships to see the actual health benefits of a good marriage.

To examine the physiological consequences of marital behavior, psychologist Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., of Ohio State University, measured 90 newlywed couples' cortisol levels (cortisol is a stress hormone that increases with negative emotions but not with positive emotions) during a 30-minute period while the couples discussed their relationship history. Prior to this discussion, the couples had been asked to discuss two to three marital issues (In-laws, finances, leisure time) that the interviewer judges determined to be the most conflict producing.

Couples were not considered if either spouse had any chronic health problems that might compromise their immunity or if either couple suffered from a psychological disorder.

Positive and negative words were also counted during the 30-minute interview to determine how each spouse viewed the quality of his or her marriage. The authors found that cortisol changes were influenced by both the men's and women's emotional language. The majority of men showed the expected drop in cortisol levels as they described their marriages, and they also used more positive words when they recounted their relationship history compared to the men whose cortisol levels remained constant or increased. Negative word use was not related to men's cortisol changes.

On the other hand, said the authors, women whose cortisol levels decreased used fewer negative words when describing their marriages. But when the wives described their marriages using negative words, their cortisol levels were much higher than their husbands who were experiencing the same negative events. "Women appear to function as the 'barometers' of distressed marriages and are in part more sensitive to negative marital interactions than men," said Dr. Kiecott-Glaser.

The authors found that these major differences between the husbands' and wives' reactions to these marital interactions were also related to their marital status eight to 12 years later. The men's cortisol changes at the time they were discussing their marital history was not associated with marital status eight to 12 years later. But the women whose cortisol increased as they recounted their marital history earlier on were more than twice as likely to be divorced a decade later, says Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser. It could be that wives' greater cognitive and emotional sensitivity to marital distress and their physiological arousal, explained Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser, "may also be tied to their greater propensity to mend or end their marriages."

Marriage has different costs and benefits for men's and women's health, according to the study, "and this study suggests that physiological changes related to relationship quality may also be determined during positive interactions."




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