If your partner is going through a stressful time, simply refraining from arguments and other negative behaviors may make an even bigger impact than reaching out with comforting behaviors, according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Although loving gestures are always a good thing, the study found that negative ones tend to trigger more intense and immediate responses, especially during stressful events. And how a couple works together during difficult times is linked to individual well-being as well as satisfaction with the relationship.

“When people face stressful life events, they are especially sensitive to negative behavior in their relationships, such as when a partner seems to be argumentative, overly emotional, withdrawn or fails to do something that was expected,” said researcher Keith Sanford, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“In contrast, they’re less sensitive to positive behavior such as giving each other comfort,” he said.

The new findings also show that low doses of a behavior are most important, and over time, more extreme levels have less of an impact.

“Because people are especially sensitive to negative relationship behavior, a moderate dose may be sufficient to produce a nearly maximum effect on increasing life stress,” Sanford said. “After negative behavior reaches a certain saturation point, it appears that stress is only minimally affected by further increases in the dose of relationship problems.”

For the study, Sanford and co-researcher Alannah Shelby Rivers, doctoral candidate in psychology and neuroscience, surveyed couples going through stressful life events to gauge their behaviors, relationship satisfaction, personal well-being and quality of life.

The study consisted of two experiments done using data from Internet samples.

In the first experiment, 325 couples who were married or living with a partner all reported experiences of at least one of six possible stressful events within the past month: losing a job, becoming a primary caregiver of an older relative, experiencing a parent’s death, experiencing a child’s death, not having enough resources to afford basic necessities, and experiencing bankruptcy, foreclosure or repossession of a house or car.

The second experiment involved 154 people who were either married or living with a partner and experiencing a serious medical issue meeting one or more of these criteria: a condition requiring hospitalization or a trip to the emergency room, a serious chronic condition and a life-threatening condition. All respondents said they had been treated by a medical practitioner within the past year for their conditions.

Researchers used a scale that included 18 items — nine for negative and nine for positive behavior. Respondents were asked to think about the past month, then write a few words describing different memories of interactions occurring in their relationships and indicate how often specific types of interactions occurred in their relationships.

All participants also were asked questions about how rewarding their relationships were, their general well-being (such as being active and vigorous) and their quality of life (such as health). Participants in the first experiment also were asked about stress, their coping strategies in general and their coping style in the relationship.

The second experiment, which looked at couple’s behavior during stressful medical events, showed lower levels of negative behavior than the first study dealing with other types of stressful issues.

“It is possible that couples facing stressful medical situations are less likely to blame each other,” researchers wrote.

“When people face stressful life events, it’s common to experience both positive and negative behavior in their relationships,” Sanford said. “When the goal is to increase feelings of well-being and lessen stress, it may be more important to decrease negative behavior than to increase positive actions.”

Source: Baylor University