Under pressure: How couples cope with stress
Jason gets off work after a long, exhausting day. He drives home and ruminates about the way a coworker undermined him in front of their boss. He gets angry and stressed thinking about how overqualified he is for his position and how badly he wants a new job.
Jenna just found out she’s getting a raise. In high spirits, she heads home, eager to share the news with Jason, her significant other. But almost immediately after she walks in the door, Jason starts venting about work. Jenna’s mood quickly deflates.
“Why don’t you just get a new job? You complain about this all the time!” she snaps. Jason stops venting and shuts down. He feels worse than he did before. Jenna forgets all about the good news she had to share.
Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve heard something like this from a couple you know, or even experienced it yourself. Like dust behind the refrigerator, stress is inevitable and everyone has it. All couples must learn to cope with stress, if they want their relationship to last.
Why can stress be so difficult to manage in our relationships? One reason is that emotions are contagious. We can catch the bug of a bad attitude just by being in the same room with someone, like Jenna did with Jason.
“Our emotions with our partners are intrinsically linked,” says Ashley Randall, a faculty member in counseling psychology at Arizona State University. Randall studies how couples cope with stress.
Throughout her research, Randall has found that partners can either help each other mitigate stress, or exacerbate it. For example, when Jenna came home to Jason in a bad mood, her positivity diminished. And when Jason brought up his stressful day at work, Jenna made his experience of that stress even worse by criticizing him. In this scenario, Jason and Jenna were engaging in what psychologists call negative dyadic coping behaviors.
To study how romantic partners cope with stress in real-time, Randall recruited couples to visit her ASU lab in the Counselor Training Center.
During the study, Randall filmed couples having a series of conversations about stressors that affected one or both partners, like dealing with a friend or planning for the future. Then, each couple watched themselves and rated how they felt on a second-by-second basis. For example, Jason would rate on a scale of 1 to 100 how supportive he felt Jenna was being at the exact moment she told him to stop complaining.
"There are three 'clients' when you’re seeing a couple in therapy. There are the two partners, and then there is their interaction.”
Randall and her colleague Nick Duran in ASU’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences are now analyzing the data. They are going back to the videos and looking for specific types of interactions and coping behaviors. The conversations validate what we might expect. Every couple is different, and they cope with stress in myriad ways.
“We look at satisfied couples and not-so-satisfied couples, as well as depressed couples and non-depressed couples, and one of the things our lab is showing is that there’s a lot of within-couple variability. What may work for one couple may not necessarily work for another couple,” Randall says.
This makes sense when you consider how diverse couples can be. And drilling down even further, there’s the complexity of an individual’s disposition. For example, Randall points to one’s attachment style. If one partner is naturally anxious, and the other is avoidant, they are likely to experience the same stressful conversation differently than a couple where both partners are secure in the relationship.
Despite all this variability, research shows there are some positive coping behaviors that can make stressful conversations much more pleasant for any couple. In the initial analyses, Randall and Duran have found that some behaviors have positive effects, like empathy and problem solving. Others are negative, such as giving a sarcastic response.
For example, let’s compare Jenna and Jason with Michael and Maria. When Michael comes home in a bad mood and complains about his job, Maria starts feeling agitated. But she takes a deep breath and lets Michael vent.
“That would make me angry, too,” she says, in an effort to express empathy. Together, they problem-solve and come up with a plan for Michael to talk with his boss about the situation. He starts to feel better, and so does she.
Romantic relationships are complex. The dynamic between Jason and Jenna might be worlds apart from the way Michael and Maria operate.
“That’s why when we train students clinically, we say there are three 'clients' when you’re seeing a couple in therapy. There are the two partners, and then there is their interaction,” Randall says.
Coping with stress is a challenge for anyone. Dealing with stressors as a couple can be even more complicated. But in addition to the normal stress of day-to-day life, couples who are members of minority groups often face additional pressures. One focus of Randall’s lab is the unique stress same-sex couples may encounter. This includes harassment, discrimination and lack of family support due to their sexual orientation.
In a study funded by the National Council on Family Relations, Randall recruited same-sex couples to report on their daily stress. One factor she examined was internalized homophobia. The study showed that individuals with higher levels of internalized homophobia also reported higher amounts of stress in other areas, such as work and finances. Conversely, those who were more “out” about their sexual orientation reported less stress.
Randall also looked at how couples’ stress affected their relationship quality. On days when individuals reported feeling particularly stressed, they felt their relationship quality had worsened, too.
Randall’s research has shown that in heterosexual and same-sex couples alike, a little understanding goes a long way. Responding empathetically when a partner brings up stressful topics not only helps alleviate that stress, but can even have positive effects on reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. Empathetic behaviors can include nonverbal communications, like head nodding and leaning in to one another. These nonverbal listening cues offer a way to easily infuse empathy into conversations with a stressed-out significant other.
In Jenna and Jason’s case, there was likely room for improvement on both sides. Perhaps Jason could have been mindful in how he expressed his stress to Jenna. And Jenna could have been more patient and understanding, providing a space for Jason to vent about his job. Randall says that couples who face stressors together, as “our” stress, have shown to have better outcomes.
“Relationships take work. It’s finding the right person you want to do the work with,” says Randall.
There’s no magic bullet for coping with stress in relationships. But for couples who want a strong and lasting partnership, Randall offers her top five tips below:
1. Remember – your emotions are linked to your partner's. You both share and experience each other's good and bad days, a phenomenon psychologists call emotional co-regulation.
2. Be aware that your stress can impact your partner's experience of stress, having a sort of “stress spill-over” effect.
3. You and your partner can learn to jointly cope with stress to combat its negative effects on you and your relationship. Take time to listen, empathize or problem-solve with your partner – a practice psychologists describe as positive dyadic coping.
4. Despite having stressful days (and maybe weeks), it’s important to make time for your significant other. Spending time with your partner is not just about quantity. The quality of that time matters for your relationship satisfaction.
5. Turning "me" into "we" can have a lasting positive impact on your relationship and health.