Can you rate the quality of your relationship by what happens when you hold hands?

During stressful times, how much better do you feel when you hold your partner’s hand?

Husbands are not the only ones who benefit from spousal contact. In a study published in Psychological Science (December 2006), Coan focused on the regulatory effect of hand-holding during a stressful event. Coan had 16 married women undergo an fMRI, during which he administered a small electric shock while each woman held her husband’s hand, a stranger’s hand, or no hand at all. Women reported less unpleasantness while holding their husband’s hand and even slightly lower stress levels while holding the hand of a stranger. These results could not be chalked up to politeness either, as fMRI scans confirmed their feelings.

Most strikingly, the effects of spousal handholding varied depending on marital quality, with happier couples feeling the most relief. The regulatory effect was so strong that one woman emerged from the fMRI sobbing. Initially misunderstanding the tears, “I thought for sure I was going to get shut down,” Coan said. Fortunately, they were tears of joy, as the woman recalled holding her husband’s hand during labor many years ago.

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