Study Reveals How Stress Colors Our View Of Our Partners (It’s Not Pretty)

New research examines how unrelated stress can accumulate and eventually spill over into your relationship.
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High levels of stress can take a toll on even the strongest relationships ― and a recent study suggests that personal life stressors can even change how you look at your partner.

According to the study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, married people who are experiencing stress are more likely to notice their spouse’s negative behavior ― you left the dishes in the sink again?! ― than their positive behavior.

“Put another way, stress may be linked not only to what individuals do, but also to what they see, in their relationship,” said Lisa Neff, the lead author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Neff told HuffPost she’s interested in understanding how couples can maintain happy and fulfilling relationships over time.

Traditionally, research has focused on how characteristics of individuals (for instance, their personality traits) and their relationships (things like commitment and communication dynamics) could predict more positive relationship outcomes.

But Neff said this perspective overlooks the fact that relationships don’t take place in a vacuum. Couples are embedded in workplaces, neighborhoods and social networks that all may play a role in shaping how the relationship develops and changes over time.

“Research shows that when people are aware of their stress, they're more likely to recognize that stressors may be coloring their views of the relationship, and thus they can try to correct for that.”

- Lisa Neff, associate professor, University of Texas at Austin

“As a researcher, I have long been interested in understanding how stress from these other life domains may spill over into the relationship,” she said. “When we are experiencing more stress in these life domains ― work difficulties, tensions with extended family or friends, financial strains ― does that affect how we behave when interacting with our relationship partner?”

To find out, Neff and her colleagues asked 79 straight newlywed couples ― they had to have been married for less than seven months ― to complete a short survey before bed for 10 days.

On this questionnaire, people were provided a list of potential behaviors, both positive and negative, that they might have engaged in when interacting with their partner that day. They were asked to indicate 1) if they’d engaged in any of those behaviors themselves and 2) if their partner had engaged in any of those behaviors.

“In this way, we were able to compare an individual’s perceptions of their partner’s behaviors to their partner’s actual self-reported behaviors,” Neff said.

“We found that individuals who were more stressed were more accurate in perceiving day-to-day changes in their partner’s negative behavior, compared to individuals who were less stressed and tended to overlook or underestimate their partner’s negativity,” she said.

A person’s stress did not affect how accurate they were in perceiving day-to-day changes in their partner’s positive behaviors.

“Stress may be linked not only to what individuals do, but also to what they see, in their relationship,” said Lisa Neff, the lead author of a recent study on stress and intimate partners.
FG Trade via Getty Images
“Stress may be linked not only to what individuals do, but also to what they see, in their relationship,” said Lisa Neff, the lead author of a recent study on stress and intimate partners.

Why did the researchers use newlyweds as the sample set?

“During the honeymoon period, the tendency for couples to focus on the positive and minimize the negative is especially strong,” Neff said. “So these results speak to just how powerful the effects of stress may be.”

Neff noted that a single stressful day was not enough to compel a partner to zero in on their spouse’s negative behavior, but in the aggregate, stressful days and life circumstances could produce that result.

So how do you ensure you and your partner don’t let all that cumulative stress damage your views of each other? Below, Neff and marriage therapists give some stress-busting, relationship-aiding advice.

Know your triggers.

Awareness of how stress affects us in the moment is vital here, Neff said.

“Research shows that when people are aware of their stress, they’re more likely to recognize that stressors may be coloring their views of the relationship, and thus they can try to correct for that,” she said.

To recognize your triggers, focus on situations that generally elicit a strong emotional response.

“Once you can identify those situations ― particularly triggers from outside the relationship ― learn to verbalize them to yourself and your partner,” said Amelia Aldao, a psychologist and anxiety specialist in private practice in New York City.

Take some time to decompress.

Don’t ruin the relationship vibe with your bad mood ― get some space away from your partner. Neff pointed to a 1989 study out of the University of Pennsylvania that found that if a person withdrew from their partner and took some time to emotionally recover from a highly stressful work day, their stress was less likely to spill over and make a dent in the relationship.

Let your partner know it’s you, not them, Aldao said.

“If your partner knows you’re having a difficult day and are somewhat emotionally or cognitively depleted, they can then create a buffer for you,” she said.

In the study, a person’s stress did not affect how accurate they were in perceiving day-to-day changes in their partner’s positive behaviors.
Marko Geber via Getty Images
In the study, a person’s stress did not affect how accurate they were in perceiving day-to-day changes in their partner’s positive behaviors.

Don’t scapegoat.

This sort of perpetual bias and stress spillover can lead to partners scapegoating each other for their problems, according to Liz Higgins, a marriage and family therapist and founder of Millennial Life Counseling. The stressed spouse may look at their problems and conflate them with relationship problems, or redirect their angst toward their partners.

“I would go as far as to say that our partner is our ‘mirror,’ giving us opportunity after opportunity to redirect and look inward at ourselves to explore our deepest needs, insecurities, fears and vulnerabilities,” Higgins told HuffPost.

When we don’t do the hard, complicated job of facing our own problems, we’re prone to project our needs and frustrations outward onto others, or “operate from a lens of expecting others to meet needs for us that we could be addressing internally first,” she said.

Learn effective ways to manage your own stress.

Stress management techniques should be a front-line defense to minimize stress spillover, said Kurt Smith, a family therapist in Roseville, California, who works mostly with men.

“Some common ones are exercise, meditation or prayer, and writing or journaling,” he said. “Self-monitoring stress levels and building emotional intelligence are also important and helpful.”

To nip stress spillover in the bud, learn how to self-soothe.
kupicoo via Getty Images
To nip stress spillover in the bud, learn how to self-soothe.

If this feels like a recurring problem, get some outside perspective.

If stress spillover is a significant problem in your relationship, get some third-party perspective ― and not necessarily from friends. Higgins recommends working with a professional who is versed in couples dynamics and modern-day relationship problems.

“It can actually damage your relationship to work with someone who is operating purely from their own personal experience, rather than a data-driven perspective on what actually helps couples navigate biases, differences, high-stress experiences in life and relational discord,” she said.

A good couples therapist can validate that many couples ― even ones in the honeymoon phase, like in this study ― experience high levels of stress that they take out on their partners, Higgins said.

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