Sunday, March 22, 2015

The pervasive influence of stress on your relationship

Stress occurs when the perceived demands of the environment exceed the individual’s perceived resources. So for example, when you have to finish a report for work in one day when it should take a week. Stress takes a toll on the mind and the body. We've already talked about that here and here and here. But people don’t live in a vacuum, we live inside relationships and families and societies. Thus, there is a growing interest in understanding how an individual’s process of experiencing stress influences other people in their lives. Rather than thinking about how having too little time to prepare the report will influence your health, relationship scientists are interested in how having too little time to prepare the report will influence your partner’s health and the health of the relationship.

In other words, How does stress outside the relationship influence stress and satisfaction inside the relationship?

In particular, Mariana Falconier of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and her international colleagues was interested in testing the Systemic-Transactional Stress Model (STM) which posits that stress from daily hassles can have a negative impact on psychological and physical health of the individual as well as the health of the relationship. According to STM, one partner’s stress depends on the other partner’s stress and coping.

To address these questions, they conducted a study of 110 couples, most of whom were in their 40s, had been in their committed relationship for 18 years, and just over 54% had children. Each member of the couple answered questionnaires about stress they experience outside of their relationship, such as financial troubles, stress at work, and conflict with their friends. Then they answered questions regarding stress they experience within their relationship, such as feeling neglected or disturbing habits of their partner. The participants also filled out questionnaires about their current symptoms of depression, anxiety, and physical health. Finally, all participants completed a measure of relationship satisfaction.

Their findings were quite interesting, but also quite complicated. Overall, they were interested in describing whether each member of the couple’s stress outside the relationship influence their partner’s relationship satisfaction. Overall, they found what everyone would expect. When an individual experiences more stress outside of the relationship, they will also report more stress inside the relationship and poorer relationship satisfaction. However, their findings are more interesting when you look at how stress outside the relationship influences their partner, and how those patterns differ for men and women. When women in the sample reported more daily hassles, their partners reported more stress within the relationship, more depression symptoms, and poorer relationship satisfaction. However, men’s daily hassles did not influence women’s reports of stress in the relationship, women’s mental health, or women’s relationship satisfaction.

The next step in this research is to understand how women’s daily hassles are affecting men, and why men’s daily hassles aren’t affecting women in the same way. For example, do men not talk about their stress and thus there is less spill-over of stress from work to home? Do women require more support from their partner when experiencing daily hassles, thus increasing the demands placed on the relationship? Do men not know how to support their female partner’s through stress, and thus experience hopelessness at watching their loved one struggle? We really don’t know yet.

The authors brought up that a past study followed couples for an extended period of time and recorded men and women’s responses to one another in times of stress. They found that on days men experienced stress, women provided more support. In contrast, when women were stressed, their male partners provided support but also responded to the partner’s stress with blame, criticism, or inconsiderate advice. Now we understand that the costs of failed support result in the deteriorating health of both partners and their relationship. Maybe it’s just a matter of appraisal. When your partner is grumpy do you automatically think, “They must be under a lot of stress right now” or is it “What a %&*$!!” If it’s the latter, how is that helping either of you?

Until we know more, perhaps it’s enough for men to be more aware of when their female partner is experiencing stress. Awareness is the first step to providing support to prevent the cascading effects. Alternatively, women can also be more aware of when they are letting daily hassles at work “spill over” into their relationship in a negative way.  

One idea to keep in your toolkit is a clinical exercise called “Opposite Action” where individuals practice smiling even though they are angry, reaching out to someone when you feel like being alone, or providing more love and support to a person even though they are particularly irritable and ornery. This concept can be helpful in couples, where you often feel compelled to draw away from someone when they are being unreasonable or difficult. That may be exactly when they need “just because” flowers or date night. We are here to care for one another and your relationships are your greatest resource. Protect them, nurture them, invest in them.

Falconier, M. K., Nussbeck, F., Bodenmann, G., Schneider, H., & Bradbury, T. (2014). Stress From Daily Hassles in Couples: Its Effects on Intradyadic Stress, Relationship Satisfaction, and Physical and Psychological Well‐Being. Journal of marital and family therapy. DOI: 10.1111/jmft.12073

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