UT study shows friends and family help fight marital stress

Eric Vela

A recent UT study shows that strong relationships with friends and family members may help alleviate the physiological issues that can be brought on by conflict in married couples.

The study, led by researcher Lisa Neff, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, monitored the day-to-day lives of 107 married couples, while frequently measuring their cortisol levels. The study was published last week in the online edition of Social Psychological and Personality Science. 

Neff said cortisol, a steroid hormone that helps the body respond to stress, is supposed to start high in the morning and decrease throughout the day in a process called a diurnal rhythm. The disruption in this process brought on by a stressor like marital conflict can lead to serious health issues.

Co-author and UT alumna Liz Keneski said these health issues can include cardiovascular problems and mortality.

“It’s important for social science researchers to attempt to uncover how people can protect themselves from the potential negative effects of relationship stress, which is what we were able to do in this study,” Keneski said. 

Neff said they asked the subjects about their social networks, including the number of family members and close friends and the strength of those relationships. 

The team discovered subjects with a high quality social network of friends and family experienced less of a physiological effect from the marital conflicts. 

“For people that are highly satisfied with their outer relationships, there was no longer a link between marital conflict and cortisol levels,” Neff said. “Not just a decrease in it.”

According to Neff, the number of relationships did not matter nearly as much as their strength.

“The quality of support in the network is what matters more,” Neff said. “Having a large network doesn’t matter. Even if you have a few solid relationships outside of your marriage, the link is gone.”

Graduate student Krystan Farnish said she plans to implement the study’s findings in her relationships. 

“I’m engaged,” Farnish said. “(The study) shows that it’s important to have a strong network of friends to support you and not just rely on your spouse.”

In addition to having a network of quality relationships, Neff advised developing more realistic expectations of spousal relationships.

“Don’t expect your spouse to be your everything,” Neff said. “Marital conflict is inevitable. … Everybody has it. What matters is how we respond to it.”