The study examines whether anxiety or chronic relationship stress alter the way that couple conflict affects cortisol levels for women and men during the transition to parenthood. Saliva samples, assayed for cortisol, were collected before and after couple interaction from 128 heterosexual couples expecting their first child. Confirming prior research, expectant mothers had higher cortisol levels than their spouses, and gestational age was linked to women's cortisol level. Negativity during couple interaction was associated with greater cortisol reactivity for men, but not women. Tests of moderation indicated little relation between negativity and cortisol recovery for individuals with a low level of anxiety or little history of chronic arguing with the partner. However, among individuals with elevated levels of either of these two factors, negativity was linked to less cortisol recovery for men, but more cortisol recovery for women. Consistent results were also found for the relation between low warmth in the couple interaction and both reactivity and recovery for men and women high in anxiety. Future research should examine whether pregnancy is responsible for these different gender patterns, or whether the inhibition of negativity is stressful for women with high levels of risk.
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