Research has clearly shown that having a spouse with you while experiencing a stressful event can reduce the potentially harmful physiological response to that stress. Pupil dilation is able to capture that stress response almost instantaneously; the pupils dilate within 200 milliseconds of stress exposure. While pupil dilation has been examined as a stress response, no studies have investigated whether having your spouse with you while experiencing a stressful event, as compared to being alone, could be seen in the pupil dilation response. In order to investigate this, we randomly assigned 40 married couples to participate in a stress task in which they were either sitting together as a couple while doing the task, or they completed the task alone without their spouse in the room. For couples sitting together, they held hands during the task. While they completed the stress task, we used an infrared camera to measure their pupil size.
Results showed that, indeed, having a spouse with you while experiencing a stressor reduced or dampened pupil dilation compared to experiencing a stressor alone. This is consistent with previous literature and other physiological methods. However, this novel finding shows that the dampening effects are immediate. In other words, we were able to demonstrate how quickly marriage can be beneficial in the face of stressors. Using pupil dilation gives researchers an innovative pathway to use to investigate how marriage may protect us against stress.
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