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Relationship advice: this is how small gestures can make a big difference in your relationship

Posted by
Lauren Geall
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Two people holding hands

According to a new study, engaging in small ‘positive’ behaviours during a disagreement with your partner can make all the difference to your overall stress levels.

One of the trickiest parts of any relationship is managing disagreements. 

Whether you fail to see eye-to-eye on something as trivial as who’s doing the washing up, or bash heads over something more serious such as your finances or familial relationships, being able to work through disagreements and find a middle ground is one of the most important ingredients for any successful relationship, especially at the moment.

In fact, according to a new study by scientists at Wayne State University and the University of Georgia, being able to manage disagreements in a positive way not only makes a difference to your relationship – it could make a difference to your overall stress levels, too.

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The research, which was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, found that couples who were able to show each other small signs of affection during a disagreement – such as holding hands – saw a positive impact on their stress levels in the long term.

To measure this effect, scientists Sabrina Bierstetel and Richard Slatcher asked a group of couples to record regular saliva samples over a three day period, which allowed the scientists to track the levels of cortisol (aka the stress hormone) in their body throughout the day. They also recorded the couples having 10 minute discussions to ascertain whether they relied on positive or negative behaviours to sort disagreements.

A couple
Small displays of affection during a disagreement can make a big difference to our overall stress levels, the study suggests.

Naturally, cortisol behaves in what scientists call a “diurnal” pattern, meaning it shows variation throughout the day in correspondence to our circadian rhythm. Typically this means it rises throughout the morning to wake us up, reaches its peak in the afternoon when we’re at our most alert and then falls as we head towards bedtime. However, in people who are exposed to higher levels of stress, this pattern is likely to be a lot flatter because you don’t see the daily dips.

How does this relate to the new study? According to Bierstetel and Slatcher’s research, when the couples used ‘positive conflict behaviours’ – such as affection, humour and engagement – to navigate their disagreements, they saw a much more pronounced cortisol pattern, meaning their stress levels were able to rise and fall in a healthy way. This means that, just by using positive conflict behaviours (affection was the positive behaviour which made the most difference overall), couples were able to positively impact their stress levels in the long term. 

By contrast, ‘negative conflict behaviours’ such as agressiveness and defensiveness mostly had no overall effect on the couples’ stress levels – although specific negative behaviours such as scorn and hurt did contribute to a flatter cortisol pattern.

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As psychologist Susan Krauss points out in Psychology Today, although this study may not take into account other, external sources of stress such as finances or work pressures, it’s clear that the small gestures really do make the difference.

“The ways that couples negotiated disagreements went above and beyond [the effects of external pressures] to help mitigate, on the one hand, or exaggerate, on the other hand, their impact on health,” she writes. “In other words, your partner can either make your life better or worse depending on how the two of you navigate the disagreements you inevitably might face.”

Although we’re more likely to notice the bigger, more romantic gestures over the smaller, everyday moments, it’s clear that the latter has the power to make a difference when it comes to our relationship happiness. 

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Lauren Geall

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