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Why Pandemic Stress Can Be So Hard on Marriages

Stress is hard on relationships. Pandemic stress? It's even harder.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

Marriage advice often concerns communication, conflict resolution, and couples’ view of each other. But that advice doesn’t always apply, particularly when high levels of stress enter the picture. Stress, be it brought on from work, family matters, or, you know a global pandemic, clouds our minds and makes us more likely to not be the best partner because we’re overwhelmed. Obvious though that may seem, relationship research has been slow to address the influence of stress on relationships

Since the early 2000s, University of Texas at Austin Professor Lisa Neff has explored how factors outside of relationships determine the long-term success of relationships over time. While previous relationship research focused on couples’ personality traits and behavior within the marriage, Neff pulled the camera back for a broader view of how couples relate to the world. 

In two longitudinal studies, she tracked more than 250 couples during their first four years of marriage to understand how factors underlie successful relationships and to learn how outside stress, from work, financial difficulties, and family problems, affects relationships. Her research found a strong association between stressful experiences and the long term trajectory of marital quality. During the past year, she and her team have looked at how the stress of the pandemic has affected couples. 

Fatherly spoke to Neff about how stress acts on relationships, why blaming the pandemic for your stress can help (for a while), and what couples can try to remember when stress starts to change their dynamic. 

Why did you start looking at how stress influences relationships? 

For a long time, [researchers] overlooked what I always thought was the elephant in the room. Relationships take place in a broader context. We’re interacting with the world around us, we’re situated in environmental context. And a lot of times that environmental context contains a lot of stress. And it’s really important to understand how those external factors command our time and attention. Work stress, homeschooling your kids during a pandemic financial difficulties, caring for aging parents: all of those things can spill over to affect the way we think and behave within our relationships because stress really is a very powerful influence on our relationships.

Hannah Williamson, who’s in my department, did a study looking at 414 ethnically diverse newlywed couples’ communication skills and ability to talk about important relationship issues.  Stress was a stronger predictor of couples’ communication than personality. It was stronger than relationship satisfaction. It was stronger than, for instance, childhood experiences like what kind of home were you raised in. Stress was the strongest predictor of how well couples were able to communicate about their relationships. That just highlights how important it is.

Couples could be perfectly communicating and could be doing all the things that a therapist or a psychologist might advise them to do to have a good relationship. But if there are these external pressures working on their relationship, the relationship is going to be hard, right?

You can have the tools in your toolbox, but stress can take away your ability to use those tools. So the idea is doing all those good things we know we’re supposed to do, like biting your tongue when your partner snaps at you or forgiving your partner when they mess up or let you down and talking about difficult issues in calm and constructive ways — all of those kinds of healthy behaviors are more effortful to engage in. They require greater levels of self control compared to more selfish or destructive behaviors, right? Relationships are hard work, but we also know that coping with stress is hard work as well. If you’re dealing with a lot of work deadlines and other pressures, it’s taxing your energy and resources. It’s draining you and leaving you with less energy and resources to then interact with your partner.

If you’ve just had a really stressful day, when you reunite with your partner at the end of the day, you just have less to give. You’re more likely to engage in those negative behaviors, even though if the conditions were changed and you were not under stress, you might do all the right things in your relationship. 

You used the phrase “elephant in the room” earlier when you were speaking and it’s the name of one of your papers. Why was stress overlooked in older relationship research?

Some of the interest in understanding stress came from intervention programs aimed at low-income couples trying to improve their relationships. We know that the marriage rate and the divorce rate is higher in low-income couples than in higher-income couples.

That’s led to an understanding of what is going on in low-income couples. And one huge difference is that they reside in a context filled with more life stress. They are coping with more difficult circumstances. 

Therapists and interventions talk a lot about fixing communication and improving the way you talk about issues. Some of these couples were okay in their communication skills, but the stress makes it difficult to use those skills. Context matters and it matters in some pretty important ways.

What have you seen as far as stress affecting couples during the pandemic?

There’s all of this research I’ve looked at about stress and its negative effects on how people think and behave. So just to color some of this, when people are under stress, they tend to notice more negative things about their partner and fewer positive things. It sort of clouds those rose-colored glasses that we often see happy couples wearing. When people are stressed, they’re more likely to behave badly or lash out at their partner. We also just had a paper come out showing that when people are stressed, they’re not as good at providing support to their partner, which is sort of a rather ironic consequence,

Because that’s when you need the most support.

Exactly. When couples are under stress, they need support the most. But when individuals are under stress, it’s harder for them both to notice their partner’s needs and to give support even when they notice those needs.  

But what is different about the pandemic, if anything? 

My colleagues and I were interested. And there are some really unique factors associated with the pandemic in that it is a large scale stressor that affects a lot of people. It is affecting the entire world and we all know it’s happening. We know it is very clear where our stress is coming from and it’s pretty much an uncontrollable stressor. It’s this really large-scale stress affecting a lot of people. And it’s really uncontrollable. There is a little bit of research in the field that suggests that those qualities might encourage people to blame the stressor for their problem, as opposed to blaming each other, which could have a protective effect.

There’s only been one clear example in the literature prior to our study that was done during the great recession. Research shows that generally when couples are under greater financial stress, they’re less happy in their relationship, their communication suffers. The Great Recession, however, was a little bit different because, sort of like the pandemic, it was large scale. It was very well-publicized in the media. And it was uncontrollable and affected a lot of people. People in the Great Recession were more likely to blame the recession for their economic problems than they were to blame each other. And that blaming of the recession protected the relationship. Their happiness remained higher, even though they were having financial difficulties because they were sort of able to unite and say it’s not our fault, it’s the Great Recession’s fault.

Is it the same during what we’re experiencing right now? 

We thought the pandemic might have some similar effects because it is well-publicized. We’re all under tremendous amounts of stress, but we also know where this stress is coming from. We were interested in seeing who people were blaming for their problems in their relationship and did blaming the pandemic help to protect you from the negative effects of stress on the relationship? That’s really interesting. And we did find that people were, and we, so I should say we did this the first wave of the study was done in April. So it was pretty early in the lockdown phase. So, things were sort of new and fresh and everyone was adjusting and trying to adjust to the new normal so to speak.

We found in general that on days when people had more stress, they were less happy in the relationship and they behaved badly in the relationship. They were more likely to engage in those negative behaviors, like being critical in blaming and angry and impatient with their partner. However, if you were blaming the pandemic more, then that was reduced. You maintained greater levels of happiness and you didn’t behave as badly even on those high stress days. 

So blaming the pandemic served a protective function. It seemed to reduce those stress spillover effects. It’s almost like a scapegoat. We can explain what’s going on by focusing on the pandemic and reduce those negative effects of stress.

Can an awareness of how stress influences relationships help you in your relationship?

Yes. That is the good news. But I’ll give you a caveat that’s a little bit of bad news. 

So there is some research that suggests yes, awareness of the stress can help reduce the harmful effects of that stress. And that’s what this pandemic is all about. However, that’s only helpful up to a point. So the next part of this study is when we first did this pandemic study, and even we never imagined that here we are a year still dealing with this. The idea is awareness can help to a point, but if the stress continues and continues to overwhelm the resources you have for coping with the stress, then it’s possible that even being aware of the stress may no longer be helpful. 

So if you’re aware of the stress and have some resources at your disposal to manage the stress, that awareness is going to be good, but the pandemic has dragged on for months and months and months. You can imagine at a certain point that the toll this stress is taken, is just becoming overwhelming. It’s becoming too much, it’s overwhelming coping resources and maybe blaming the pandemic would be a little bit less effective. And we are starting to see in our follow-up data collection we’ve done with this sample that that might be the case and the beneficial effects of blaming the pandemic might be starting to wear off as this drags on and on.

That’s interesting. 

Of course it always has that sort of awareness. I think I have awareness, but I always like to joke, especially when I talk with my students, that just because I know what I’m supposed to do in my relationship doesn’t necessarily mean I do it. I can be overwhelmed by my stress just the same way. So there are certainly times where I behave badly and lash out at my partner and I can stop and think, ‘Oh, I know exactly why I did that, but it didn’t stop me from doing it in the first place.’ So I think we are all susceptible to these processes.