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Moments of intimacy help mothers and fathers cope with work stress

Photo: Sascha Kohlmann. Creative Commons.

We measured the biological response of work stressed mothers and fathers to intimate moments with their spouses.

We have measured the biological response of work stressed mothers and fathers to moments of intimacy with their spouses. This is part of my research program on how parents cope with work life balance – I have already reported on how easy it is for work stress to infect home life and how it can be managed.

There is a long tradition of research showing that supportive others such as family members, friends, coworkers, or supervisors can have beneficial effects on individuals, especially during stressful situations. They can take over some of the tasks and thereby alleviate work load. They can listen to the individual’s worries, make them seem smaller or remind the individual of their strengths or victories in the past. Or they can simply make the individual feel better in spite of the stressful demands placed upon her or him.

We looked at working parents reporting their chronic work-organization problems. Over the course of one week, we asked participants several times a day what they were doing, with the aid of handheld computers. We were interested in intimate moments they experienced with their spouses – both verbal and physical intimacy.

We found that intimacy reduced the levels of a hormone that is particularly high after encountering stressors. Moments of closeness with loved ones make people feel better in general and this translates into their physical state. And it seems that people who experience these mental and physical states more often are better protected against negative consequences of work stress. Their reactions to various stressors seem to be altered.

But the question remains how a person can have intimate and satisfying moments with their partners after a stressful day at work, a situation that can chase the desire for tenderness away.

While there are no easy solutions, we know some of the ingredients of a positive response. One element is detachment from work issues, as I have described here already. Another element is time: intimacy rarely unfolds under time pressure. A third element is the way in which tensions are typically resolved between the partners – humor and affection are effective.