HPA regulation and dating couples' behaviors during conflict: Gender-specific associations and cross-partner interactions

Heidemarie K. Laurent, Sally I. Powers, Holly Laws, Meredith Gunlicks-Stoessel, Eileen Bent, Susan Balaban

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The way romantic partners behave during conflict is known to relate to stress responses, including activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis; however, little attention has been paid to interactive effects of partners' behaviors, or to behavior outside of marital relationships. This study examined relations between unmarried partners' negative and positive behaviors during discussion of conflict and their HPA responses, including both main effects and cross-partner interactions. Emerging adult opposite-sex couples (n= 199) participated in a 15-minute conflict discussion and afterward rated their behavior on 3 dimensions: conflictual, holding back, and supportive. Seven saliva samples collected before and after the discussion were assayed for cortisol to determine HPA response. Quadratic growth models demonstrated associations between male. ×. female partners' behaviors and cortisol trajectories. Two negative dyadic patterns-mutual conflictual behavior (negative reciprocity); female conflictual/male holding back (demand-withdraw)-and one positive pattern-mutual supportive behavior-were identified. Whereas negative patterns related to lower cortisol and impaired post-discussion recovery for women, the positive pattern related to lower cortisol and better recovery for men. Women's conflictual behavior only predicted problematic cortisol responses if their partner was highly conflictual or holding back; at lower levels of these partner behaviors, the opposite was true. This work demonstrates similar costs of negative reciprocity and demand-withdraw and benefits of supportive conflict dynamics in dating couples as found in marital research, but associations with HPA are gender-specific. Cross-partner interactions suggest that behavior during discussion of conflict should not be categorized as helpful or harmful without considering the other partner's behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)218-226
Number of pages9
JournalPhysiology and Behavior
StatePublished - Jun 3 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Conflict behavior
  • Cortisol
  • Couples
  • Demand-withdraw
  • HPA
  • Hierarchical linear modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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