Life’s stresses can make people focus more on their romantic partner’s negative behavior

Can stressful life circumstances affect how partners see each other?


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Stressful experiences external to a marriage are often associated with poor relationship functioning and lowered marital satisfaction. This phenomenon is known as stress spillover. However, little attention has been devoted to understanding the specific mechanisms through which stress may lead to maladaptive relationship patterns.

A new study by the Society for Personally and Social Psychology examined whether individuals confronting more stressful life events and/or daily hassles are more likely to monitor their partner’s negative relationship behaviors attentively. The study suggests that a person experiencing stress is more likely to notice their spouse’s negative behavior than positive. Meanwhile, stress could affect what actions partners notice in the first place. A spouse breaking a promise, showing anger or impatience, or criticizing their partner were among the negative behaviors being monitored.

Lead author Dr. Lisa Neff of the University of Texas at Austin said, “We found that individuals who reported experiencing more stressful life events outside of their relationship, such as problems at work, were especially likely to notice if their partner behaved in an inconsiderate manner.”

For ten days, 79 heterosexual newlywed couples were asked to complete a brief survey detailing their own and their partner’s behaviors. Before starting this study section, participants filled out a questionnaire that provided details about stressful life situations.

Dr. Neff noted, “Studying newlyweds drives home the significance of the results because couples are especially likely to focus on each other’s positive behavior and overlook negative actions during the “honeymoon” period.”

“For many people, the past few years have been difficult – and the stress of the pandemic continues to linger. If stress focuses individuals’ attention on their partner’s more inconsiderate behaviors, it is likely to take a toll on the relationship.”

Research reported that while a single stressful day wasn’t enough to make someone focus on their partner’s negative behavior, a prolonged period of time spent under stressful conditions did. The results also imply that individuals under stress were not any less likely to observe their partner’s thoughtful activities, but they were more likely to observe their partner’s negative behaviors.

Dr. Neff noted“While it’s possible that being aware of the effects of stress could allow couples to correct their behavior and limit harm to the relationship. This will remain speculation until it is studied further. Future research would do well to expand this study beyond the honeymoon phase.”

“One direction would be to examine if the harmful effects of stress might be even stronger among couples no longer in the newlywed phase of their relationships, but the fact that we found these effects in a sample of newlyweds speaks to how impactful the effects of stress can be.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Lisa A. Neff, April A. Buck et al. When Rose-Colored Glasses Turn Cloudy: Stressful Life Circumstances and Perceptions of Partner Behavior in Newlywed Marriage. Social Psychological and Personality Science. DOI: 10.1177/19485506221125411