Global and Situational Relationship Satisfaction Moderate the Effect of Threat on Pain in Couples

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Objective. The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that greater global and situational relationship satisfaction would reduce the negative impact of threatening information on acute pain.

Design. An experimental design was used to manipulate threat and elicit acute pain via a cold pressor task.

Setting. The study was completed in a research laboratory at a large urban university in the Midwestern USA.

Subjects. Participants were 134 couples, in which at least one individual was an undergraduate student.

Methods. After administration of a global relationship satisfaction measure, couples were randomly assigned to either receive high or low threatening information about the painful task. Following the threat manipulation, couples discussed the upcoming task and rated their satisfaction with the interaction (i.e., situational relationship satisfaction). The designated pain participant then completed the painful task alone.

Results. The threat manipulation altered couples’ perceived threat of pain. Situational relationship satisfaction moderated the effect of threat on pain trajectories such that situational relationship satisfaction predicted less pain intensity at an earlier point in the task for the low threat condition than the high threat condition. Greater global relationship satisfaction predicted greater likelihood of task completion among those in the low threat condition, whereas it was unrelated to task completion in the high threat condition. Greater global relationship satisfaction also predicted lower pain intensity throughout the task.

Conclusions. These findings demonstrate that the interpersonal context is independently related to acute pain and may also alter the effect of threatening information on acute pain.

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