Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Stress Hormone Changes and Marital Conflict: Spouses' Relative Power Makes a Difference

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Stress Hormone Changes and Marital Conflict: Spouses' Relative Power Makes a Difference

Article excerpt

We investigated the impact of relative marital power on 72 newlywed couples' endocrinological responses to marital conflict. Marital power was determined by comparing spouses' reports of dependent love for one another. Less powerful spouses displayed elevated adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) responses to a conflict discussion. Shared power appeared to have a beneficial effect on wives' but not husbands' ACTH responses. Spouses' cortisol levels declined over time, except for wives who were less powerful and for husbands who shared power with their wives. Conflict behaviors did not differ as a function of this marital power index. These data suggest that relative levels of general emotional power in relationships may play an important role in spouses' physiological responses to marital conflict.

Key Words: ACTH, conflict, cortisol, dependent love, marital power, stress hormones.

Romantic relationships, particularly marital relationships, play an especially important role in individuals' lives. Research has documented both direct and indirect effects of marriage on the health of spouses (Burman & Margolin, 1992; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001); in general, married individuals are better off both physically and psychologically than their nonmarried counterparts (Goodwin, Hunt, Key, & Samet, 1987; Gordon & Rosenthal, 1995; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001).

The potential benefits of marriage are balanced with risks, however. Negative marital interactions affect cardiovascular, endocrinological, and immunological function (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1997; Malarkey, Kiecolt-Glaser, Pearl, & Glaser, 1994; Miller, Dopp, Myers, Feiten, & Fahey, 1999). For example, hostile interactions increased wives' blood pressure (Ewart, Taylor, Kraemer, & Agras, 1991), and husbands' withdrawal during conflict was associated with increases in wives' norepinephrine and cortisol (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., nomic status) the most resources is presumed to be relatively more powerful (Babcock et al.; Safilios-Rothschild, 1976; Tichenor, 1999). Spouses have also been asked to indicate who most often makes important decisions for the dyad (Gray-Little & Burks, 1983). The rationale behind this approach is that the spouse with greater marital power most likely has final authority over important marital decisions (Cromwell & Olsen, 1975), although the bases of this process of decision making are not explicated. Finally, behavioral indicators of power differentials are often used (Babcock et al.; Christensen & Heavey, 1990; Gray-Little & Burks, 1983). For example, by observing couples' attempts to resolve an area of disagreement, specific displayed behaviors can serve as a sign of power. Withdrawal during discussion is considered one behavioral indicator of marital power. On one hand, those with more power withdraw during conflict as a way of protecting the status quo within the marriage or to avoid conflict escalation. On the other hand, a spouse seeking change in the relationship lacks structural power, hence the attempt to change the status quo (Christensen & Heavey).

Prior to addressing why we might expect relative power to be associated with spouses' stress hormone levels, we first address this important issue: What is meant by marital power, and how should one go about assessing it? Below, we review extant research regarding marital power, focusing on past conceptualizations and measurement. Building on the insights of others (Safilios-Rothschild, 1976; Sprecher, 1985; Waller & Hill, 1951), we argue for a broad, relationship-focused operationalization of power centered on feelings of dependent love between spouses. Finally, we present related evidence from both animal and human models that suggests the likelihood of differential stress hormone responses as a function of relative marital power.


Although marital power is a fascinating intra-relationship concept with important consequences (e. …

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