Stressful life events can cause emotional strain that spills over into many areas of an individual’s life. For married couples, the stress of financial obligations, family problems, or health issues can add unwanted distress to an already challenging environment. Spouses already take on the daily responsibilities of maintaining a harmonious relationship with another human being.
But how do stressful life events contribute to the failure or success of intimate relationships? April A. Buck of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin recently led a study to address this question. The study analyzed how newlyweds responded to daily stressors over a 14-day period.
The goal of the study was to determine if stress depleted emotional resources that individuals need to maintain relationship satisfaction. Specifically, Buck wanted to know if stressors caused couples to expend emotional energy to such a degree that they were left with insufficient emotional energy to cope with their relationship in adaptive ways. She sought to find out whether couples who were willing to work at difficulties and who work long and hard to achieve positive outcomes would succeed regardless of their emotional supply.
For her study, Buck assessed the couples’ amount of self-regulation resources, their relationship behaviors and appraisals, and their levels of stress. Buck found that couples tended to behave more negatively to their spouses on days when they experienced high levels of non-relationship stress compared to days when they had less stress. They also used less affirmative words and actions during times of stress.
Buck discovered that these negative trends were directly the result of taxed self-regulatory emotional resources. She believes that the results of this study demonstrate the negative effects that non-relationship stress can have on intimate relationships, even happy ones. She added, “These findings suggest that even happy couples may find it difficult to engage in adaptive relationship processes under conditions of stress.”
Buck, A. A., Neff, L. A. (2012). Stress spillover in early marriage: The role of self-regulatory depletion. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029260
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