An Unsupportive Partner Raises Your Cortisol Levels

A new study links the lack of social support in the couple to the increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships examined the link between communication skills while giving and receiving social support and cortisol levels.

Cortisol, dubbed as a stress hormone, is responsible for mediating the stress response, as well as regulating metabolism, the inflammatory response, and immune function. Having chronically high cortisol levels can cause various health issues.

In the study, the researchers at Binghamton University examined 191 heterosexual married couples. Over two 10-minute sessions, they discussed personal issues unrelated to their marriage.

The researchers analyzed their communication for instances of both positive and negative social support given and received. Additionally, the researchers evaluated the participants’ perception of the support they received and gathered saliva samples to assess cortisol levels.

The study found that wives who received support more negatively, such as rejecting help, felt less understood, validated, and cared for by a partner. This led to an increase in cortisol levels throughout the interaction.

“Couples felt more understood, validated, and cared for when their partners showed positive support skills, and less so when they showed negative communication skills,” said Richard Mattson, a professor of psychology and author of the study.

Additionally, biological stress levels before the interaction appeared to accurately predict how couples would act and perceive the interactions.

Another major predictor of couples' behavior and perception was the overall perception of partner responsiveness — an assessment of feeling understood, valued, and cared for.

The authors note that perceptions of support interactions may shape experience in relationships. The study found significant associations between the perception of the interaction and how supportive and responsive the participants believed the partner to be more generally.

“One possibility is that perceptions of how supportive a partner is can build over time and across several interactions; and the more general picture shapes how particular behaviors – good or bad – might be viewed in the moment,” Hayley Fivecoat, the lead author of the paper, a clinical research psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Increased cortisol levels over a long period may cause Cushing’s syndrome. The disorder primarily affects adults aged 30 to 50 and is three times more common in women than men.

Cushing’s syndrome can cause prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, heart attack and stroke, blood clots, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, and mood disorders.

Amy Schumer, an actress and stand-up comedian, has recently revealed her Cushing’s syndrome diagnosis. The reveal came after comments about the “puffiness” of her face, a symptom of the disorder.

How do romantic relationships impact our health?

Previous research has shown the significant impact romantic relationships can have on our health.

A 2023 study found that married people had lower blood sugar levels regardless of the relationship quality. Their blood glucose levels changed significantly after experiencing marital transitions, such as divorce.

Another study discovered that married people who have had a heart attack were 14% more likely than single patients to survive after the event. Marriage was also a protective factor in patients with the three biggest risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

Moreover, middle-aged women in marriages with high levels of satisfaction are less likely to have high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and body mass index — risk factors leading to cardiovascular disease.

Social support and satisfaction in relationships may have a considerable impact on mental and physical health. The new study authors say that a better understanding of how couples support each other in stressful situations can help strengthen relationships and overall well-being.

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