Dec. 20, 2006 -- In a happy marriage? Holding hands with your spouse may help you reduce stress.
That's what psychology experts from the University of Virginia found when they studied happily married couples.
James Coan, PhD, and colleagues conducted the study, which included 16 happily married couples who were in their early 30s, on average.
First, the husbands and wives rated the quality of their marriages on a scale of 0 to 151.
Scores lower than 100 were considered to be distressed marriages. To participate in the study, both husbands and wives had to have high scores.
Among couples chosen for the study, the husbands' average score was 126; the wives' average score was 127. That's a "generally high level of marital quality," the researchers write.
Holding Hands to Reduce Stress
The couples were told that the study was about holding hands -- and that mild electric shocks would be involved.
The wives wore electrodes on their ankles and watched screens that warned them when a shock was coming or assured them that they weren't due for a shock.
Meanwhile, the researchers scanned the wives' brains with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Coan's team had previously familiarized the couples with the fMRI machine.
But when the wives held their husbands' hands during the same threat, their brain scans looked calmer than when they weren't holding hands.
Holding a Stranger's Hand
For comparison, the wives were also tested while holding the hand of an unseen man they had never met.
While holding the stranger's hand, the wives' brain scans were less calm than while holding their husbands' hand, but calmer than while not holding anyone's hand.
The wives also rated how unpleasant and stressful each experiment had been.
They said that while they felt physically calmer while holding anyone's hand -- spouse or stranger -- only holding their husband's hand made the tests less unpleasant.
In short, holding the stranger's hand was better than holding no hand at all, but holding their husband's hand was best.
That finding is in line with other research showing the benefits of social connection, rather than isolation, and the importance of close emotional relationships.
Good Marriage Counts
All of the couples in the study were happily married. But some rated their marital quality higher than others.
The wives' brain scans showed that the effect of spousal handholding under threat was greater in stronger relationships.
That is, the wives in the best marriages appeared to have the calmest brains while holding their husbands' hands under threat.
The researchers didn't scan the husbands' brains. So it's not clear if husbands' brains are soothed under stress while holding their wives' hands.
The findings may not apply to couples in less happy relationships, Coan's team notes.