Conflicts in a relationship are inevitable and can stress both romantic partners. The question is: Which one does a relationship conflict stress more, men or women? The attachment style of a person can predict his or her stress response to conflict with a partner, but the vulnerable attachment styles are very different in men and women. This is according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In their study involving124 couples, Sally Powers, Paula Pietromonaco, Meredith Gunlicks, and Aline Sayer examined the couples’ self-reported dependence on their partner and avoidance of intimacy, and anxiety about abandonment and rejection.
The participants completed questionnaires and spent around 15 minutes discussing an issue that resulted in unresolved and heated discussions in the previous month. Powers and her colleagues collected 7 cortisol samples examining physiological stress in anticipating the conflict, throughout this relationship conflict, and during the recovery period of 40 minutes.
Powers and her team found that while both men and women demonstrate physiological responses to a conflict, the responses are significantly more pronounced in men compared to women and involve various attachment factors. The researchers found that, in men, anxiety strongly predicted the responses. In women, only those who were highly avoidant exhibited significant cortisol changes.
Women and conflict
According to Powers, "Men and women may face different demands in the conflict-negotiation task," adding that women are typically expected to be the ones initiating and guiding conflict discussions in a relationship. She believes, however, that the team’s task may be especially difficult for avoidant women, or those women who would distance themselves in a conflict situation, rather than discuss it.
Certainly, the avoidant women in Powers and colleagues’ study demonstrated high reactivity prior to and during the conflicts, but they recovered immediately after leaving the conflict discussion. Conflict avoidance is physiologically rewarding for this type of women.
Men and conflict
On the other hand, men are usually expected to be the more passive participants. Powers assumes that while they may want to resolve conflicts, anxious men feel mostly uncomfortable when they actively confront relationship conflicts.
However, men who participated in the study who had secure partners had the lowest levels of cortisol reactivity, suggesting that their partners helped them in regulating their physiological stress levels. Conversely, the men’s attachment style had no regulating effect on their partners’ stress levels.