You experience stress nearly every day of your life. Stress can come from your job, your coworkers, fellow commuters, and generally from having too much to do without enough time to do it. And anyone in a relationship knows how easy it for that “external” stress to find its way into their romantic relationship.
Researchers followed 80 couples’ over 4 years and found that when couple members reported more stress outside of their relationship, they also reported feeling less comfortable depending on their partners and felt less close and more unsure about their relationship compared to couple members who were less stressed.1 This type of stress “spillover” may also occur on a daily basis. In a study of 165 newly married couples, individuals who reported more daily stress also reported more negative relationship behaviors such as criticizing their partners.2 These results indicate that stress from outside a relationship can spillover and cause more negative relationship behaviors. But, it’s also possible that those more prone to stress are also more prone to having poor relationships. An experiment would be needed to determine if stress directly affects relationships.
How They Did It
To see if the acute experience of stress could cause negative relationship behaviors, researchers from the Departments of Psychology at Monmouth University and Ursinus College randomly assigned over 120 participants to either a high or low stress condition.3 Within the time limit, those in the high stress condition had to complete a series of 10 complex math problems by indicating which numbers came next (e.g., “87, 174, 261, 348, 435, _____, _____, _____” The answers are 522, 609 and 696 respectively—each number increases by 87). Those in the low stress condition did a similar, albeit much simpler, task (e.g., “1, 2, 3, 4, _____, _____, _____” The answers are….obvious).
The researchers were interested in whether stress affected two types of relationship behaviors: Complimenting one’s partner and attending to relationship alternatives. Complimenting one’s relationship partner is a positive relationship maintenance behavior that facilitates satisfaction, commitment and love. To see whether stress influenced compliments, researchers gave participants 2 minutes to “List as many compliments as you can think of, that you can say to your partner the next time you see him/her.” Paying attention to potential alternative partners is a negative relationship behavior that is associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Rather than ask participants if they pay attention to alternatives, researchers gave participants a task to see how they actually behaved. Researchers told participants they could participate in one-on-one “get to know you/acquaintance building exercises” with as many individuals as they like from a sheet picturing 12 single, physically attractive potential partners. Picking more partners to interact with indicates greater attention to alternatives, which links to cheating/infidelity.
What They Found
Participants in the high stress condition gave their partners fewer compliments and were more likely to want to interact with attractive alternative partners. Specifically, participants under stress gave 15% fewer compliments and selected nearly 20% more attractive partners for the interaction task compared to those who experienced minimal stress.
What These Results Mean for You
These findings are one of the first to establish a causal link between stress and relationship behaviors. Specifically, they show how individuals’ acute stress experiences undermine relationships by making those individuals less likely to compliment one’s partner and more likely to pay attention to other potential partners.
Although you may not experience a series of difficult and stress-inducing math problems in your day-to-day experience, life is full of other stressors. In light of these findings, it would seem important to recognize when you’re under stress and take corrective actions to avoid doing things that could harm your relationship, which would ultimately just lead to more stress.
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1 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. doi:10.1037/a0015663.
2 Buck, A. A., & Neff, L. A. (2012). Stress spillover in early marriage: The role of self-regulatory depletion. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(5), 698–708. doi:10.1037/a0029260
3 Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Mattingly, B. A., & Pedreiro, A. (2014). Under pressure: The effects of stress on positive and negative relationship behaviors. Journal of Social Psychology, 154, 463-473. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2014.933162
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.