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Couples in supportive marriages have better mental, physical health, study finds

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Sept. 15 (UPI) — Couples who support one another during stressful times show signs of improved mental and physical health compared to those in less nurturing relationships, a study published Wednesday by PLOS ONE found.

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The analysis, which used married couples watching horror movies as a model for challenging situations they experienced together, found that those who held hands and remained close physically during the film showed less signs of stress than those who did not, the researchers said.

Although the researchers were hesitant to apply their findings to other scenarios — including stressful situations in daily life — they acknowledged that emotional and social support is key to a healthy relationship.

“Our results indicate that being in a supportive marital relationship is automatically and unconsciously helpful to our bodies’ physiological stress response,” study co-author Tyler C. Graff told UPI in an email.

“This research is part of a larger body of relationship research demonstrating how supportive relationships are a protective factor for our health and well-being,” said Graff, an assistant professor of psychology at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

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For years, mental health research has suggested that being in supportive relationships helps people respond well to stress, be more resilient in adverse situations and maintain physical and mental well-being.

However, measuring the effects of support during times of stress has proved challenging, according to researchers.

For this study, Graff and his colleagues asked 83 couples — most of them in their 30s and married for 10 or more years — to watch two, 10-minute video clips from horror films.

In a series of experiments, one member of the couple would watch the clips, with sound, while the other would sit next to them, listening to music through noise-cancelling headphones, according to the researchers.

The couples then would switch positions and repeat the experiments, the researchers said.

Sixty-eight of the 83 couples were instructed to watch the clips together while holding hands, while the rest were asked to not have any physical contact.

Stress responses during and after the video clips were measured using blood pressure cuffs and assessments of participants’ pupil dilation, as pupils often dilate during stress.

More than two-thirds of the couples who held hands during the clips described it as supportive, the data showed.

In addition, these couples had a lower stress response to the videos, based on pupil dilation, compared to the couples who did not hold hands.

“Marital quality is often viewed as a single dimension of being either supportive or aggravating — yet marriages can contain both high elements of support and high elements of strain concurrently,” Graff said.

“Based on our findings, I recommend that people prioritize their relationship with their spouse [and] ensure that you are a source of support and not strain for your loved one,” he said.

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