The presence of a romantic partner can actually worsen physical pain for women, according to new research, particularly among those who avoid intimacy in their relationships.

Researchers from University College London, King’s College London and the University of Hertfordshire included 39 couples in their study.

The scientists used lasers to give the women moderately painful pulses on their fingers, both when their partners were present and when they were absent.

They found that in many instances, the pain the women reported feeling was not reduced when their partner was present. In many cases, the women said their pain felt worse when their partner was with them.

The pain was particularly bad for women who avoid closeness in their relationships. The researchers evaluated this by determining each woman’s adult-attachment style, a measure of how an adult either seeks or avoids emotional intimacy in relationships.

“Overall, this study suggests that partner support during pain may need to be tailored to individual personality traits and coping preferences,” senior study author Dr. Katerina Fotopoulou said in a statement.

“Individuals who avoid closeness may find that the presence of others disrupts their preferred method of coping with threats on their own. This may actually maintain the threat value of pain and ultimately heighten individual’s pain experience.”

The findings have been published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

For the study, the researchers asked the women to fill out a questionnaire to measure their adult-attachment style (AAS). When they administered the laser pulse, they asked the women to rate the intensity of the pain.

They also measured the women’s brain activity.

The scientists found the women who most avoided intimacy in their relationships felt more pain when their partner was present. This was evident both in the pain the women reported feeling and the brain-activity measurements.

The pain measurements in women who were more likely to seek closeness in their relationships varied little between when their partner was present or absent.

Previous studies have found that participants report reduced pain when they look at a picture of their partner, compared to when they look at a picture of a stranger or an acquaintance. In these studies, brain scans showed activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the region related to safety, and the nucleus accumbens, the reward centre of the brain.

Other studies have indicated that women prefer to have their partners nearby during childbirth, and tend to use fewer painkillers during labour when their partner is present, the researchers note.

The different results between the labour studies and this current research may have less to do with the sensation of physical pain and more with the larger needs associated with childbirth, Fotopoulou said.

“Future studies could test how having a partner present during labour affects the pain felt by women who tend to avoid closeness in relationships.”