What Happy Couples Do Differently When Tensions Arise

Life often feels like a game of Wac-A-Mole or, as one patient put it, like an endless wave of attention-requiring energy-draining drudgery: “I basically crisis-surf all day.” Not surprisingly, when people report a lot of stress outside their romantic relationship, they also report more stress inside their romantic relationship. This “spillover stress” takes the form of harsh words, criticism, less forgiving behavior, fewer positive interactions and no doubt, more eye rolls.

Anyone who has ever had a bad day can relate. The moment we get home, we unzip that bursting-at-the-seams emotional backpack, filled with all the annoyances and hassles accumulated over the course of the day, and dump its contents on our partner’s lap. Venting, finger pointing, and laying blame typically follow. All too often, we cannot resist holding them responsible for the empty tank of gas, the broken dishwasher and the sick dog (“Weren’t you the last one to feed him?”).

Over time, this behavior functions like relationship anthrax—it poisons good will, asphyxiates intimacy, and propagates contempt. A study entitled “Under Pressure: The Effects of Stress on Positive and Negative Relationship Behaviors” published in the Journal of Social Psychology found that people gave 15% fewer compliments to their partner and were also more likely to want to flirt with someone else when experiencing “high stress.” In other words, not only do we roll our eyes more at the other person and interpret their behavior through a less glamorous lens when feeling flattened by the daily grind, we also tend to have more of a roving eye.

Unloading pent up frustrations on those closest to us erodes the quality of the relationship and usually ends up leaving us feeling even more stressed out. Research suggests an alternative more helpful strategy: instead of blaming the other person for your woes, focus on the big picture instead. For instance, during the 2007-2009 financial crisis, people who blamed the economy for their problems rather than the other person reported feeling happier than couples who blamed each other for their day-to-day money issues. Similarly, as described in a recent Scientific American Mind article entitled “It’s Not You, It’s COVID,” a study found that couples who blamed the pandemic for tension rather than each other stayed happier. Attributing stress to the coronavirus enabled them to cope more effectively together.

The research suggests that couples who present a united front against a stressor are better equipped to navigate tough times. Reframing obstacles as a shared challenge makes it easier to tackle as a team. As the researchers observe, when faced with a great deal of stress, “the ability to shift blame for relational distress away from each other and onto the stressor may inspire partners to unite in the face of a common threat.”

Bottom Line: Stress can tear us apart. It can also bring us closer.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman