Forget about bubble baths, chocolate, lunch with the girls or martinis.
A touch of her husband’s hand is one of the most effective ways to calm and comfort a woman, said University of Virginia psychologist Jim Coan, who looked inside the brains of 16 wives to discover that yes, hubby held the key to their peace of mind.
Using magnetic resonance imaging, Mr. Coan found that women under stress who hold their husbands’ hands show signs of “immediate relief,” with a powerful decrease in threat-related brain activity. What’s more, the better the marriage, the better the relief.
“There’s a lot of research out there suggesting that people in strong attachment relations derive health benefits. What we didn’t expect was for our findings to be so strong, so clear,” Mr. Coan said Thursday.
“We were also surprised to see that findings varied according to marital quality,” he continued. “Women in better marriages derived more benefits, which can clearly be seen on their brain scans.”
The scientific community and public alike have been intrigued by the reassuring news.
“This is the first time I ever received fan mail for a study,” Mr. Coan observed.
He was persnickety about determining the parameters of a good marriage, subjecting the couples to the Dyadic Adjustment Scale, a standard psychological test that evaluates their sweet talk, arguments, mutual interests, humor and other shared moments.
And the hand-holding?
Mr. Coan said the sentimental activity has long been a part of folk culture as a symbol of affection. But it now has scientific merit as well, he said. The study, supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, put couples to the real test — one somewhere between the territories of Dr. Phil and Dr. Frankenstein, perhaps.
During the wives’ brain scans, each received mild but nonetheless threatening electrical shocks. Mr. Coan measured the response in their brains when they held the hand of their beloved — and that of a stranger.
“The results showed a large decrease in the brain response to threat as a function of spouse hand holding,” but limited response to a stranger, the study stated. The husbands even lessened emotional activity in the brain’s pain processing circuits.
Other research in recent years equates marital bliss with good health.
Women in satisfying marriages have a distinct health advantage over single or unhappily married women, according to an American Psychological Association study that found that solid marriages benefit blood pressure, cholesterol and other cardiovascular factors.
The “bliss of a steady marriage” is also a strong antidote to a life of crime, a University of Florida study found.
Alternatively, long-term, low-quality marriages have significant negative effects on overall well-being, according to a study released last month by Pennsylvania State University sociologists.