Couples who report larger amounts of stress outside their marriages also tend to report less satisfaction within their marriages. You have probably heard the classic “joke” about a person being mad at the boss, but she can’t yell at her boss, so she goes home and yells at her husband, who, in turn, yells at their son, who then kicks the dog, who wonders what it did wrong. Perhaps not a very funny joke (or not funny at all), but it does illustrate a phenomenon that researchers call stress spillover: when stress from outside the marriage causes problems inside the marriage.
Research, however, suggests that stress may not always be bad for a relationship and can, in fact, be beneficial.1 In two studies of newlywed couples, researchers found that couples who had effective problem-solving skills and were supportive of one another were more satisfied in their relationship when they experienced a moderate amount of stress (including health, financial, work, school, and interpersonal problems) at the start of their marriage. In particular, couples transitioning to parenthood who had experienced stress prior to becoming parents (as we know becoming parents is a challenging event for many couples) and were supportive of each other were likely to be happier in their marriages as compared to supportive couples who didn’t experience stress early in their marriage.
Practice may not make perfect, but it does appear that practice managing stress can benefit couples that already have good relationship skills. And that is an important caveat—couples that didn’t have good relationship skills when newly married did not benefit from experiencing stress early in their marriages. It would appear that practicing bad skills does not make them better. So stress can do a marriage good, but only for those with ‘skillz’.
1Neff, L. A., & Broady, E. F. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, advanced online publication.