Can a healthy romantic relationship yield physiological as well as psychological benefits?
In my recent posts, we’ve considered how two different elements of social interaction can have important implications for your emotions and psychological health. We first learned that forgiveness was associated with higher marriage satisfaction as well as lower symptoms of depression and hostility. Last week we considered how our emotions are determined in part by the people with whom we choose to spend our time.
In general, researchers in positive psychology have demonstrated that positive emotions may be able to “undo” the effects that negative emotions have on our physiological response (such as elevations in heart rate during negative emotions).
Can we see evidence of this “undoing” effect in long-term romantic relationships?
The Undoing Effects of Positive Partnerships
In a recent study, researchers asked 149 married couples to discuss a high-conflict area of their marriage (e.g., money difficulties) for 20 minutes while their physiological responses were recorded. During this time, partners were also videotaped and the researcher recorded the emotions of the speaking partner and the listening partner as follows:
Positive: Expressed interest, affection, humor, validation, joy.
Negative: Expressed anger, contempt, disgusts, belligerence, domineering, defensiveness, fear/tension/worry, sadness, and whining.
Listener: Positive, negative, and neutral facial expressions.
The results showed a significant relationship between expressions of positivity and decreases in physiological response. That is, when couples expressed positivity despite being engaged in a conflict-heavy discussion, their bodies were more likely to relax. The positive expressions undid the physiological effects of the conflict, at least in part.*
This study underlines that the nature of your relationships may be critical for your emotional health, and indicates the importance of framing even difficult discussions in a constructive and positive way.
* Since this is a correlation, it is equally possible that a reduction in physiological response led to a greater likelihood of positive expressions. More research is warranted!
Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in affective science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. To learn more about her research, please visit http://bit.ly/sarahrose.