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Romantic partner present can make pain feel worse

For people who avoid closeness in relationships the presence of their romantic partner when they are suffering physical pain increases that pain, according to new research from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s, UCL and the University of Hertfordshire, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

The study found that the pain felt by 39 women given ‘pinprick’ laser pulses on their fingers was not reduced by the presence of their partner and in many cases the presence of a partner made the pain worse. As well as receiving the painful stimuli, each participant also completed a questionnaire to measure the extent to which she either sought or avoided ‘closeness’, or emotional intimacy, in relationships and the women who were more avoidant of closeness in their relationships were found to feel more pain when their romantic partner was present. 

“We were interested in the role of individuals’ patterns of seeking or avoiding closeness in their relationships,” explained lead author Dr Charlotte Krahé, of the IoPPN’s Department of Neuroimaging at King’s. “We wanted to test whether this personality construct, termed attachment style, might determine whether partner support decreases or heightens the experience of pain.”

For each of the trials, women were given moderately painful laser pulses on one of their fingers and asked to rate the intensity of the pain. The researchers also measured how the electrical activity in their brains ‘spiked’ in response to the laser pulses, to examine the relation between pain reports and brain activity. They found that the presence of a partner had no significant effect, good or bad, on the pain felt by women who sought closeness in relationships, and that pain increased for women who avoided closeness in relationships. One reason for this proposed by the researchers is that the presence of others disrupts some individuals'  preferred method of coping with threats on their own, which may maintain the threat value and so heighten the pain.

“Further research is needed to see how this might apply to different situations; for example, how having a partner present during labour affects the pain felt by women who tend to avoid closeness in relationships,” concluded Dr Krahé.

The research was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the European Research Council.

Paper reference: Krahé, C. et al. ‘Attachment style moderates partner presence effects on pain: A laser-evoked potentials study’ published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsu156

For further information contact Tom Bragg, Press Officer at IoPPN, King’s College London, on +44(0)2078485377 or email