Being subjected to unsupportive behaviors from a romantic partner appears to influence how the brain processes mistakes, according to new research published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology. The findings indicate that unsupportive behaviors are associated with heightened neural reactivity after committing an error in the presence of one’s partner.
“Romantic relationships are a huge part of many people’s lives, but there is still so much that we don’t know about how they impact our day-to-day experiences,” said Erin Palmwood, an assistant professor at the University of Mary Washington and a licensed clinical psychologist.
“In this study, we wanted to explore how supportive and unsupportive messages from our romantic partners impact our reactions to the mistakes we make, which might help us understand how these relationships contribute to things like adaptive risk-taking, goal-striving, and anxious avoidance.”
The final sample for the study included 20 participants (who were recruited from undergraduate psychology courses) and their romantic partners. The participants had been in a committed relationship with their partners for about 1.29 years.
The participants and their partners first independently completed a variety of psychological assessments, including the Significant Others Scale and the Social Undermining Scale. The Significant Others Scale measures levels of perceived support from romantic partners, while the Social Undermining Scale measures perceived unsupportive behaviors, such as criticism and insults.
The researchers had the participants return to the lab approximately two weeks later, where they twice completed the Eriksen Flanker Task, an assessment of selective attention and executive control. During one session, the participants completed the task while seated in an empty room. During another session, the participants completed the task with their partners seated beside them. (The partner was instructed to remain silent.)
Palmwood and her colleagues used electroencephalography to measure the participants’ brain responses as they completed the tasks. They were particularly interested in a pattern of electrical brain activity known as error-related negativity (ERN), which occurs after a person makes a behavioral mistake. “ERN amplitude is reflective of the degree to which an individual considers an error to be threatening,” the researchers explained.
Palmwood and her colleagues found that unsupportive behavior was associated with changes in error processing. Participants who perceived more unsupportive behavior from their partner tended to have increased ERN responses when errors were committed — but only when seated next to their partner.
“When your partner behaves unsupportively toward you, you tend to react more strongly to the mistakes that you make,” Palmwood told PsyPost. “This could be because an unsupportive partner might be highly critical of your mistakes, or because you may have internalized some self-critical responses as a result of hearing criticism so often from your partner. This might help explain the link between unsupportive romantic relationships and things like anxiety, depression, and decreased goal attainment.”
But the researchers said that future studies are needed to confirm the generalizability of the findings.
“A major limitation of this study is its relatively small and homogeneous sample, as well as its exclusive use of undergraduate student participants,” Palmwood explained. “This research should be replicated on larger, more diverse samples that include older adults in long-term relationships in order to enhance the generalizability of these findings.”
The study, “Unsupportive romantic partner behaviors increase neural reactivity to mistakes“, was authored by Erin N. Palmwood and Robert F. Simons.