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Unhappy couple relationships are associated with impaired individual health, an effect thought to be mediated through ongoing couple conflicts. Little is known, however, about the underlying mechanisms regulating psychobiological stress, and particularly autonomic nervous system (ANS) reactivity, during negative couple interaction. In this study, we tested the effects of the neuropeptide oxytocin on ANS reactivity during couple conflict in a standardized laboratory paradigm. In a double-blind, placebo-controlled design, 47 heterosexual couples (total n = 94) received oxytocin or placebo intranasally prior to instructed couple conflict. Participants’ behavior was videotaped and salivary alpha-amylase (sAA), a measure of sympathetic activity, and emotional arousal were repeatedly measured during the experiment. Oxytocin significantly reduced sAA during couple conflict in women, whereas men showed increases in sAA levels (sex × group interaction: B = −49.36, t = −2.68, P = 0.009). In men, these increases were related to augmented emotional arousal ( r = 0.286, P = 0.028) and more positive behavior ( r = 0.291, P = 0.026), whereas there was no such association in women. Our results imply sex-specific effects of oxytocin on sympathetic activity, to negative couple interaction, with the neuropeptide reducing sAA responses and emotional arousal in women while increasing them in men.

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