Negative Behavior in Rough Times to Significant Others Has More Impact Than Positive Behavior, Study Finds

Something to think about in balancing relationships.

Refraining from bad behavior toward a significant other during stressful life events is more important than showing positive behavior, according to a Baylor University study.

Compared with positive gestures, negative ones tend to trigger more intense and immediate responses, according to the study. And how a couple works together during trying times is associated with individual well-being as well as satisfaction with the relationship.

“When people face stressful life events, they are especially sensitive to negative behavior in their relationships, such as when a partner seems to be argumentative, overly emotional, withdrawn or fails to do something that was expected,” said researcher Keith Sanford, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

“In contrast, they’re less sensitive to positive behavior — such as giving each other comfort,” he said.

The study also found that low doses of a behavior are most important, and over time, more extreme levels have less impact.

“Because people are especially sensitive to negative relationship behavior, a moderate dose may be sufficient to produce a nearly maximum effect on increasing life stress,” Sanford said. “After negative behavior reaches a certain saturation point, it appears that stress is only minimally affected by further increases in the dose of relationship problems.”

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“When people face stressful life events, it’s common to experience both positive and negative behavior in their relationships,” Sanford said. “When the goal is to increase feelings of well-being and lessen stress, it may be more important to decrease negative behavior than to increase positive actions.”