Tyler Graff, an assistant psychology professor at Wartburg College, recently had a research article he co-authored published in PLOS ONE, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science.  


His research, “Spousal emotional support and relationship quality buffers pupillary response to horror movies,” shows that couples who support one another during stressful times — like while watching horror movies — have improved mental and physical health when compared to others in less supportive relationships.  

“One of the main broad implications of our findings is that scary, emotional or difficult situations are best approached with someone supportive, particularly a spouse,” Graff said. “Scary movies do not necessarily reflect real life, but our bodies and our brains respond to stressful or frightening situations in the same way they respond to scary movies. Our nervous system does not have a differentiator between movie adrenaline and real-life adrenaline. We would believe that dealing with real-world stressful situations would be better mitigated if approached with a supportive partner.” 

As part of the study, 83 married couples were grouped, based on a self-reported relationship quality scale, to participate in the study in either a supportive or ambivalent marital relationship condition. They were then randomly assigned to either a spousal support (i.e., handholding) or non-support (spousal absence) condition and watched clips from both horror and nature movies while pupil dilation was measured. According to Graff, when individuals become stressed, their pupils dilate, so measuring pupil dilation provided them with near instantaneous, unconscious, physiological stress reaction. 

The study authors found that having spousal emotional support in the form of handholding dampens our bodies’ stress response as shown via pupil dilation and that having a supportive marital relationship reduces this stress response even more. 

Graff said the research is part of a larger body of relationship research that demonstrates how supportive relationships are a protective factor for one’s health and wellbeing. Future research could examine the stress-buffering effects of people other than spouses in similar situations.  

“Obviously a spouse is a unique relationship, but would we see the same or similar benefits with other relationship types? Additionally, we would think that having a close friend or a good family member may also have beneficial effects in stressful situations,” he said.  


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