A new daily diary study of 79 newlywed couples found that individuals who experienced more stressful life events were especially attuned to day-to-day changes in their partner’s negative behaviors, but not their partner’s positive behaviors. They tended to see their partner as behaving more negativity compared to how individuals who faced less stressful events saw their partners. The study was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Dealing with stressors such as work difficulties, financial pressures, or unpleasant exchanges with family members often results in an increase of anxiety, exhaustion, or irritability. Even when the stressors a person deals with are outside the home, their effects can spill over into relationships with family members inside the home.
As a consequence of this, individuals may become less tolerant of their partner’s inconsiderate behaviors and less likely to give their partner the benefit of the doubt or be forgiving when they perceive a transgression. Stress may also color what behaviors individuals notice within their relationship.
“I am interested in understanding how couples can maintain happy and fulfilling relationships over time,” said study author Lisa Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Traditionally, research on this topic has focused on identifying the characteristics of individuals (e.g., personality traits) and their relationships (e.g., commitment, communication dynamics) that predict more positive relationship outcomes.”
“However, this perspective overlooks the fact that relationships do not 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. Thus, I have long been interested in understanding how stress from these other life domains may spill over into the relationship.”
“In other words, when we are experiencing more stress in these life domains – work difficulties, tensions with extended family or friends, financial strains, etc. – does that affect how we behave when interacting with our relationship partner?”
To study whether stress may be linked to types of partner behaviors that individuals notice on a daily bases, Neff and her co-author April A. Buck conducted a study in which they asked a group of 79 different-sex newlywed couples to keep a daily diary. “All couples were in their first marriage, had been married <6 months, and did not have children,” the researchers explained.
Husbands were 27.5 years old on average and wives had an average age of 25.6 years. Over 80% of participants of both genders were White. Couples kept a daily diary for 10 days that they sent by mail using pre-stamped envelopes provided by researchers. Couples were paid $25 for completing a daily diary task.
In the scope of the daily diary, participants completed a 9-item checklist of common daily hassles and a checklist of positive and negative behaviors of their partner. At the beginning of the study, participants also completed assessments of exposure to major stressful events (Stressful Life Events checklist), self-esteem (the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Questionnaire, attachment orientation (the Adult Attachment Questionnaire), and Neuroticism (Eysenck Personality Questionnaire). They were paid $75 for completing these assessments.
“Other research on the effects of stress more broadly (not examining couples’ relationships) have demonstrated that when people are experiencing greater stress, they pay more attention to, or are more likely to notice, negative stimuli in their environment compared to times when they are experiencing less stress,” Neff told PsyPost. “For instance, other researchers have shown that when individuals are stressed, angry facial expressions are especially likely to capture individuals’ attention compared to happy or neutral facial expressions (Mogg et al., 1990).”
In daily diaries, husbands reported enacting negative behaviors toward their partners on 19.1% of days and enacting positive behaviors on 87.2% of days. Wives reported enacting negative behaviors on 24.9% of days and positive on 91.0% of days. “Husbands and wives reported receiving negativity from their partner on 23.7% and 21.9% of days, respectively, and receiving positivity from their partner on 87.5% and 91.5% of days, respectively,” the study authors said.
The researchers also noted that “in general, these newlyweds underestimated the extent to which their partner enacted negativity within the relationship.”
Neff and Buck found that individuals who recently experienced more stressful life events were especially attentive to the negative behaviors of their partners, compared to individuals who experienced fewer stressful events. But when positive behaviors were considered, they found that participants on average “either underestimated nor overestimated their partner’s positivity in the relationship.”
“In our study, we were interested in determining whether individuals facing greater stress may pay more attention to their partner’s everyday negative behaviors compared to individuals facing less stress,” Neff said. “It has already been well-established that happy couples typically focus their attention on their partner’s positive behaviors, and often overlook their partner’s negative behaviors.”
“We thought that stress might cloud those rose-colored glasses that happy couples generally have,” Neff explained. “Indeed, 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 who tended to overlook or underestimate their partner’s negativity). Individuals’ stress did not affect how accurate they were in perceiving day-to-day changes in their partner’s positive behaviors.”
“Given that the sample used in this study were newlywed couples who had been married for less than seven months, these results speak to just how powerful the effects of stress may be,” Neff continued. “During the honeymoon period, the tendency for couples to focus on the positive and minimize the negative is especially strong. Yet, even within this newlywed sample – these couples who were likely highly motivated to view their partner in positive and desirable ways – stress was associated with an increased focus on negativity within the relationship.”
The findings of this study offer important insights into the association between stress and perception of partner behavior. It, however, also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study design does not allow cause-and-effect conclusions. It is possible that stressful events make a person more perceptive for negative behaviors of the partner, but it is also possible, for example, that persons who are more focused on negativity in their lives are both more likely to report stressful events and negative behaviors of others.
The study, “When Rose-Colored Glasses Turn Cloudy: Stressful Life Circumstances and Perceptions of Partner Behavior in Newlywed Marriage”, was authored by Lisa A. Neff and April A. Buck.