During Stressful Situations, Women Nurture While Men Criticize, Study Finds

What do you do when your partner is stressed out?

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Once again, we're learning that men are from Mars and women are from Venus — even when it comes to the way we freak out.

In a September 2015 study published in Psychological Science, relationship experts did their best to get on their nerves of 189 heterosexual couples in order to see how the lovebirds interacted with each other when stressed.

The psychologists amped up stress levels by conducting mock job interviews and asking the study participants to count down from 2,043 in increments of 17 as quickly as they could. And when participants messed up, they were told to start again from the beginning. (Stressful indeed!) Stress levels were tested by measuring the participants' cortisol levels (also known as "the stress hormone" because it's released when you're under pressure) via a saliva test.

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The couples were then placed in a room together for eight minutes. The psychologists recorded how the couples spoke to each other: either matter-of-factly — saying something like "I had to do math problems, and they corrected me every time I got them wrong" — or emotionally — saying something like "They must think I'm a complete idiot!"

The study authors also noted whether the couples' non-verbal behaviors were either positive (e.g., holding hands) or negative (e.g., avoiding eye contact).

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Compassionate Versus Critical

Both sexes provided positive support to their partners when they weren't under stress, but that quickly changed when cortisol came out to play.

During times of stress, women were more likely to show support than men in terms of dealing with their partners' emotions, and men were more likely to throw negative comments their partners' way in response to their emotional outbursts.

The study participants' reactions to their partners' emotional reactions (or lack thereof) show that some things are timeless. "Women are nurturers—it's not a myth, we really are," says Stacy Kaiser, MA, MFT, editor-at-large for Live Happy. "Our knee-jerk reaction is to try and comfort someone; whereas men tend to pull themselves up from their bootstraps and say, 'How can we fix this?' and move on."

Better With Age

Before you start counting all the times your partner was too emotional or not supportive, it's important to note that the couples in the study were mostly in their mid- to late-20s.

"I think this study is very accurate based on the age group and the size of the sample," says Kaiser. "However, as people get older, they often mature in their ability to handle stress, and so it may not apply in different age groups."

Kaiser explains that the longer you're with a person, "the more you adapt to manage them and their stress. The people in this study did not know each that long because they're young," she states. "That's where the aging thing comes in. As time goes on, couples know each other better, they know themselves better, so they handle stress better."

How to Be the Exception, Not the Rule

So how can partners be more supportive during difficult times? Kaiser suggests learning to accept your partner's innate reaction to stress, as well as trying to put your worries aside, even for just a few hours.

"You want to strike a balance between taking care of yourself — like making sure you're getting rest, eating well, doing things you love — and taking time to nurture your relationship by doing things you, as a couple, enjoy doing," she says. "Find an activity you can do together that will be stress-free and can give you moments in time when you're just experiencing happiness."

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