Spouses’ Attachment Pairings Predict Neuroendocrine, Behavioral, and Psychological Responses to Marital Conflict

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Abstract

This research investigated how spouses’ attachment styles jointly contributed to their stress responses. Newlywed couples discussed relationship conflicts. Salivary cortisol indexed physiological stress; observer-rated behaviors indexed behavioral stress; self-reported distress indexed psychological stress. Multilevel modeling tested predictions that couples including 1 anxious and 1 avoidant partner or 2 anxious partners would show distinctive stress responses. As predicted, couples with anxious wives and avoidant husbands showed physiological reactivity in anticipation of conflict: Both spouses showed sharp increases in cortisol, followed by rapid declines. These couples also showed distinctive behaviors during conflict: Anxious wives had difficulty recognizing avoidant husbands’ distress, and avoidant husbands had difficulty approaching anxious wives for support. Contrary to predictions, couples including 2 anxious partners did not show distinctive stress responses. Findings suggest that the fit between partners’ attachment styles can improve understanding of relationships by specifying conditions under which partners’ attachment characteristics jointly influence individual and relationship outcomes.

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