Relationships & Love

Stress Can Stop Men From Giving Emotional Support

Stress may stop men from providing as much emotional support as women, researchers say.

A study by an international team of psychologists, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that men and women who aren’t stressed out both provide strong support to their partners. But when under stress, women do a better job than men of being supportive.

“Men seem to be different when it comes to managing stress,” said Thomas Bradbury, the paper’s senior author and co-director of the Relationship Institute at UCLA. “When men are stressed, they are more likely to be critical in responding to a stressed partner and less likely to be positive, nurturing and comforting. And that’s especially the case when their partner expresses her feelings in more emotional terms.”

According to a news release from the university, the researchers studied 189 couples who were highly satisfied with their relationships and had been together for an average of slightly more than four years. The women had an average age of 26; the men, 28. The study divided the couples into three groups: one in which only the man was stressed; one in which only the woman was stressed; and a third in which both were.

Among the findings:

While unstressed, women responded with slightly more positive support than unstressed men, but both unstressed men and unstressed women provided plenty of positive support to their partners.

Women are better than men at responding to a partner’s emotional expressions of anxiety and stress. Men are more likely to get emotionally “flooded” in these moments, leading them to be less positive and to express less empathy.

When men become stressed, their ability to generate positive support deteriorates and they make a greater number of negative comments.

Men who are stressed are supportive when their partner expresses her stress in emotionally neutral or matter-of-fact terms, but are less responsive when she expresses stress in emotional terms.

“Stress is an invisible killer in relationships,” said Bradbury, a professor of psychology at UCLA. “It increases men’s tendency to be less supportive when their partner has had a bad day, and especially if she is visibly upset. Yet the woman on the receiving end of this negativity might not realize that stress is the culprit, which leaves both partners feeling misunderstood.”

Each couple was placed together in a room and videotaped by the researchers for eight minutes. The researchers induced stress by conducting mock job interviews with each participant and then asking them to count down from 2,043 in increments of 17, as fast as possible — telling them to start over each time they made a mistake.

To measure stress levels, the researchers took saliva samples and tested the participants’ levels of cortisol — a hormone released during stressful events. The results showed that the test was very stressful for men and for women.


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