New daters’ acute physiological responses to a standardized stressor : do nonadaptive hormone responses forecast romantic breakups?
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The quality and longevity of any romantic relationship depends in large part on the manner in which individuals respond to stressful situations (Karney & Bradbury, 1995). Research on the link between stress and relationship outcomes has focused almost exclusively on marital relationships. With this in mind, the current study explored associations between general stress responses (i.e., reactivity and recovery) to a psychosocial stressor and nonmarital breakup status. Data were collected as part of a larger 9-month longitudinal study investigating the mental and physical health outcomes associated with relationship transitions (e.g., breakups). Participants underwent a standardized stress protocol (i.e., The Trier Social Stress Test; Kirschbaum, Pirke, & Hellhammer, 1993) that incorporates motivated performance tasks, uncontrollability, and social-evaluative threat—all of which are key components to reliably eliciting a stress response (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004). Physiological reactivity and recovery were assessed using samples of salivary cortisol, a stress hormone of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis—one of the body’s primary stress response systems. Results from multilevel modeling indicated that cortisol trajectories among those whose relationships persisted versus those whose relationships ended were not significantly different from one another. Additionally, individuals who displayed nonadaptive hormone responses to a novel setting and a standardized stressor (i.e., took longer to recover, demonstrated greater increases in total cortisol output) were no more likely to report experiencing a breakup than were individuals who displayed adaptive responses to the same settings. Findings are discussed with regard to identifying factors that may be related to patterns of physiological function and nonmarital relationship outcomes.