Coping with stress: What does love have to do with it?

Published on August 13, 2012

stressed out

Introduction

When life tries to slap us down, we instinctively turn to others for support particularly our intimate partners. Although this tendency to seek emotional support from loved ones to heal our wounds has long been recognized, it is only in the past couple of decades that substantial scientific evidence has been obtained of its effectiveness.

What is the scientific evidence that being in a positive secure relationship helps us cope with stress?

Probably the most lucid summary of the importance of intimate relationships in recovering from stress, even traumatic stress, has been recently provided by Dr. Susan Johnson (2012). She did so as part of a series of online interviews with some of the world’s greatest experts on trauma and its treatment (National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), 2012). Before discussing her presentation and the specific scientific evidence for the power of a loving relationship to reduce stress, the different types of stressors and some examples will be detailed briefly.

Kinds of stressors: ordinary and extraordinary

Put simply, stressors are the events or processes that cause us to feel stress. Stressors can be relatively trivial annoyances which we all experience in everyday life e.g. getting caught in a long traffic jam. These might be called “ordinary stressors”. However, even ordinary stressors if they occur over long periods of time can have serious medical and emotional effects e.g. depression and anxiety.

There are also stressors which are extraordinarily unexpected and severe. These are called ”traumatic stressors” e.g. being caught in a natural disaster or finding out we have a serious medical condition. Traumatic stressors are generally one time events and can result not only in post traumatic stress, but a more serious condition called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).

However sometimes traumatic events can occur more than once. For example in active combat duty, a soldier may be exposed not just to one single trauma but to a series of them. This can result in a form of PTSD which has recently been designated by many as “Complex PTSD”.

Furthermore, if the series of trauma occur over the years of childhood, they can affect the normal psychological and emotional development of the child, possibly resulting in serious problems in adult life. This particular form of complex PTSD has long been recognized and is called codependency by Pia Melody and others in the codependence movement. Perhaps a more descriptive name would be “developmental PTSD”. In severe cases this has been long been classified by psychiatrists as Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

So what does love have to do with healing from stress and trauma?

With respect to “ordinary stressors”, Johnson asserted that “Current research shows that the quality of your intimate relationship impacts you physiologically and emotionally and has a huge effect on your personal, physical and mental health ...” This statement is supported in researches by various investigators showing that persons in a good quality marriage compared to those unmarried enjoy better physical and mental health (Kiecolt-Glacer & Newton, 2001), protecting against depression (Beach and Fincham, 1998) and anxiety (Emmelkamp P.M.G. and Gerlsma, C. 1994) and actually increases longevity (Johnson et al, 2001).

couple sliver lining

It is likely that these protective effects of a good quality marriage are due to the emotional support available to both partners. Thus improving the ability of the partners in coping with the various ordinary life stressors ranging from those due to raising children to career difficulties.

With respect to “traumatic stressors”, Johnson with even greater certainty stated “Most of all, we know that your resilience to trauma and your ability to cope with trauma are linked to the quality of your most intimate relationships.” Indeed Johnson was one of the first people to introduce couple therapy into treatment for trauma. She has conducted couple therapy for a variety of professions who regularly are exposed to trauma and hence sometimes suffer from PTSD e.g. policemen, firemen, or war veterans. She has developed strategies to help couples improve their ability to utilize the natural healing power of the relationship to help the person with PTSD recover. Consequently she has helped to demonstrate scientifically that “The natural place to heal from trauma is the arms of someone you love”.

Further evidence of the dramatic ability of a secure attachment to prevent the development of PTSD has recently been obtained by a recent Ph.D. research study (Williams, 2011). Williams used a large sample of 742 soldiers who had returned home from combat deployment overseas. He found that they had a rate of PTSD of 6% if they came home and reported a positive secure intimate relationship as assessed with a measure of attachment style (Relationship Style Questionnaire).

However in soldiers reporting insecure attachment styles ((Preoccupied, Fearful Avoidant, and Dismissing Avoidant) the rate of PTSD was dramatically increased to 61%. This tenfold increase is a magnitude of effect seldom encountered in psychological studies. It indicates most strongly the potency of a loving relationship to help soldiers recover from battle trauma without developing PTSD.

Does a secure positive relationship in adulthood help an individual recover from developmental PTSD (codependency)?

couple love

The evidence is strong and clear that being in a loving relationship can help one to cope with both ordinary and extraordinary stressors. This suggest that a positive secure intimate relationship in adulthood would help heal the lingering effects of childhood abuse which are expressed as developmental PTSD (codependency or BPD). Unfortunately, no research on this important topic could be found.

Clinical experience suggests that persons with codependency or BPD are often in very stressful adult intimate relationships. Often both members of such couples have psychological problems but even when the non-codependent partner is relatively psychologically healthy and tries to provide a secure nurturing relationship, their efforts are often sabotaged unconsciously by the mate with codependency. This is where couple therapy could be very helpful but it must be carried out by a trained professional, someone with knowledge and preferably experience in Dr. Johnson’s brand of couple therapy aimed at developing secure loving attachment.

Summary

There is strong evidence that one of the most powerful ways of ameliorating or indeed preventing the effects of both ordinary and extraordinary stressors is by being in a secure, positive, and loving intimate relationship. However, a word of caution is necessary. It may be that in some relationships, although the partners love each other, they have some specific difficulties in relating to each other that prevent the ameliorating effects of the positive relationship from occurring. In such cases, “love is not enough” and specialized couple therapy is necessary to facilitate the healing potential of the relationship.

 

References

Beach, S.R.H., Fincham, F.D., and Katz, J. (1998). Marital therapy in the treatment of depression: Toward a third generation of therapy and research. Clinical Psychological Review, 18 (6), 635-661.

Emmelkamp P.M.G. and Gerlsma, C. (1994). Marital functioning and the anxiety disorders. Behaviour Therapy. 25, 407-430.

Johnson, Susan, (2012). Transcript of interview with Sue Johnson. NICAMB http://www.nicabm.com/trauma-therapy-post/

Johnson, N. J., Backlund, E., Sorlie, P. D., & Loveless, C. A. (2000). Marital status and mortality: The National Longitudinal Mortality Study. Annals of Epidemiology, 10, 224–238.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and health: His and hers. Psychological Bulletin, 127, 472–503.

National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (2012). The program called “Treating Trauma” can be purchased from NICAMB at http://www.nicabm.com/

Williams, R. H. (2011). Adult attachment styles as predictors of posttraumatic stress severity and PTSD among U.S. army soldiers. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, 71(7-A), 2661. (UMI No. AAI3414415).

Copyright © 2012 Brian S. Scott
 


Category(s):Codependency / Dependency, Couple Counseling, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) / Trauma / Complex PTSD

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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