Even in healthy relationships, conflict is inevitable—it’s how you cope with conflict that matters. Coping badly increases stress, and research has shown that too much stress in romantic relationships can put people at risk for mental and physical health problems.
According to two new studies, cultivating non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness—or mindfulness—might help people feel less stress when conflict arises with their significant other.
However, mindfulness and stress do not affect all people in the same way. With these studies, researchers are beginning to refine how mindfulness tools can best help our relationships—and they’re finding it’s based on our style of relating to others and our habitual ways of responding to stressful events.
How does mindfulness relate to attachment?
Robin Hertz and her colleagues investigated how attachment style affects stress levels after a romantic conflict—and how mindfulness might influence these interactions.
It’s thought different attachment styles form in childhood, based on how effectively parents responded to our emotions and needs. People who are secure in their romantic attachments feel confident that they are loved, and are comfortable sharing thoughts and emotions with others. Psychologists call people who avoid intimacy “avoidantly attached”; they often feel uncomfortable sharing emotions with significant others. Still others are deemed “anxiously attached”—they tend worry about rejection. Fights with a loved one excessively stress them out because they may fear that any conflict will drive their mate to abandon them.
Prior research has suggested that mindfulness would lead people to feel more secure in their romantic relationship, and as a result, they would feel less stress during conflict. In this study, however, Hertz and her colleagues sought to uncover how mindfulness and attachment might work together to affect stress and emotional regulation after a spat.
To measure post-conflict stress, the researchers used two methods. First, they simply asked. Second, they measured the amount of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. The researchers used both of these measures—the subjective self-report and the objective saliva sample—to find out how stressed the 114 couples were after they discussed an unresolved issue in their relationship for 15 minutes.
The results, published in the journal Mindfulness, showed that people higher in mindfulness were more likely to be securely attached to their romantic partner—and secure attachment, in turn, was associated with lower cortisol-levels after the conflict.
What about everyone else? Here’s where the results get tricky. People high in attachment avoidance, even if they tested high in mindfulness, tended to be both subjectively and objectively stressed after discussing a difficult issue with their partners, likely because the demands of the situation directly challenged their tendency to avoid emotional intimacy.
On the other hand, mindful traits seemed to help anxiously attached people, who self-reported less stress—but their cortisol levels still remained high. Why the discrepancy? The researchers speculate that mindful traits can reduce the hyper-vigilance associated with attachment anxiety, helping people get a handle on negative thoughts, even if their bodies still show signs of stress.
In other words, attention to present-moment experience helps control anxiety, but it isn’t as effective in helping those who try to avoid experiencing bad feelings and thoughts with another person in the first place. Mindfulness doesn’t hurt, but it helps some more than others.
Mindfulness and gender
Of course, attachment style is not the only factor that determines how mindfulness affects your stress reaction to relationship conflict. What about gender?
In a similar study, Heidemarie Laurent and her colleagues at the University of Oregon focused on how men and women respond differently to relationship conflict, and which specific mindfulness tools might be better suited for each gender.
As in the first study, they asked couples discussed a difficult issue for 15 minutes, and the researchers collected saliva samples to measure the amount of cortisol in their saliva before and after the discussion took place. They also gave participants questionnaires to measure their level of mindfulness and overall well-being.
The results, published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, showed that women and men responded to different aspects of mindfulness differently. Women who were able to let thoughts and emotions enter and leave consciousness without getting caught up in them—who were, in other words, more mindful—had a lower, healthy cortisol response after the conflict. In contrast, men that were able to label thoughts and emotions with words had a healthier cortisol response after the conflict.
The study also found that women with higher cortisol reactivity had fewer depression symptoms, while the opposite was true for men: men with less post-conflict cortisol had higher well-being. These results may reflect the need for women to have higher amounts of cortisol than men to feel fully engaged in a conflict. In contrast, men may need less reactive changes in cortisol in order to have the opportunity to slow down to respond to the conflict.
Which tools do you need?
These results suggest that “mindfulness” is an umbrella that covers a number of specific tools. The tools that are most beneficial to you depend on which specific skills you need help with. People who often ruminate (which research shows tend to be women) may benefit most from practicing nonreactivity—letting thoughts and emotions enter and leave consciousness without getting caught up in them. People who have trouble describing emotion (which research shows tends to be men) may benefit most from practicing doing just that—labeling thoughts and emotions with words.
Both studies also show that what constitutes a healthy stress reaction is not universal: For some people, higher levels of cortisol help them engage in conflict, and need to rapidly return to a baseline cortisol level in order to disengage from the conflict and move on. For others, less cortisol activity is healthy—they may need time rather than a higher quantity of stress hormone in order to appropriately address the conflict.
So how much stress is a “good” amount of stress? And which mindfulness skills should we practice to foster a healthy relationship with our significant other when conflict arises?
The best we can say right now is, it depends. Fortunately, psychologists are working to narrow down which mindfulness skills are suited for which people, and how they might be incorporated in a therapeutic setting for couples having relationship difficulty. As Heidemarie and her colleagues write, “By seeing stressors and one’s own part in them more clearly, mindfulness allows us to respond more skillfully with what is needed—higher or lower, faster or slower stress activation—and move forward with greater equanimity.”