I love it when I come across a 15 page journal article that basically boils down to, “Relationships can be hurt by stress.” Really? Who knew!
But of course, I oversimplify (and get ahead of myself).
Neff and Karney (2009) wanted to understand how couples relate to one another in marriage over time, and whether there were specific personality factors or relationship styles that might predict more stability in a relationship, even during stressful times. Would couples become more reactive (e.g., react more intensely) to everyday relationship’s ups and downs while under increased stress?
In order to study these questions, the researchers conducted two studies. The first study looked at data from the daily diary of 146 newlywed couples over a course of 7 days. The second study examined the 7-day diary of 82 newlywed couples over the course of 4 years.
Before completing the daily diaries for a week, couples were also asked to individually fill out psychological measures on a number of specific topics, like their marital satisfaction, specific aspects of their relationship, self-esteem and attachment styles. Couples were also interviewed by the researchers to determine what their stressful life events were.
An attachment style is a psychological term for how we relate to our significant other on three psychological dimensions — relationship closeness, anxiety, and dependence. For example, an item measuring relationship anxiety might be, “I often worry that my partner will not want to stay with me.” This attachment style has been shown in previous studies to be connected to how couples deal with stress in their relationship.
Neff and Karney found that spouses — especially wives more so than husbands — experiencing greater amounts of stress reacted more strongly to the normal daily up-and-downs of relationships. This occurred regardless of their amount of self-esteem or their relationship attachment style. So having low self-esteem or an insecure attachment style did not inoculate the relationship or provide a buffer against stress, as one might expect.
The second study confirmed the common wisdom that the greater the stress in our lives, the more reactive we are to the normal ups and downs of our relationship. When under increased stress, we feel perceived slights, for instance, by our significant other more acutely. Or we hear something more in the tone of their voice when they ask us to take out the trash.
Ability alone, as the researchers note, does not ensure that you’ll be able to respond appropriately in your relationship. In may be necessary but not sufficient to have good relationship skills, because you may not be able to draw upon those skills when under increased stress. The researchers also found that a person’s relationship abilities — like relationships themselves — wax and wane over time. They are not these static skills that exist in some vacuum. In times of stress, this research suggests that we can’t always call upon our positive relationship or communication skills — the stress can overwhelm us and our abilities.
Relationships exposed to high stress for a long amount of time are bound to falter, no matter how well each individual’s relationship skills. During such times, we are more likely to see the relationship as being negative, not realizing the impact the stress is having in the validity of our evaluation — it colors our perception of the relationship itself. Remove the stress, and people’s positive relationship skills can once again — and usually do — take over.
This study is important because a lot of past relationship research has examined relationships in a kind of environmental vacuum — they didn’t take into account daily life stress or stressors when they studied the relationship. We now have a better understanding of how stress can impact a relationship, and how it can neutralize a person’s positive relationship abilities or relationship attachment style.
The take-away for couples is simple — each individual needs to learn to deal with stress in positive ways outside of the relationship (through activities to minimize the buildup of stress in the first place, regular exercise, and other stress-relief activities). No matter how well you function in everyday life, all the skills in the world may go to hell in a hand-basket when stressed out.
Neff, L.A. & Karney, B.R. (2009). Stress and reactivity to daily relationship experiences: How stress hinders adaptive processes in marriage. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(3), 435-450.
PS – As an aside, I couldn’t help but be amused that while reading this article, I constantly confused the reference to spouses not as “intimates” (as the researchers did), but as “inmates.” What does that tell you about my relationship skills? 🙂