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Stress and Relationships  

A recent paper in the Journal of Family Psychology reports the finding that external stress in people’s lives has a negative effect on their intimate relationships.  This may sound like a no brainer and a waste of research dollars, but there is some useful information to be gained.

The study determined that it was likely what they call “self-regulatory depletion” that is the key to why stress has a negative impact on relationships.  Self-regulation in this case refers to the ability to better think through behavior and responses before acting.  Many of the things that are beneficial to relationships aren’t things we tend to do automatically.  It seems it is more natural for us as humans to act in very selfish ways rather than relationship oriented ways.  Self-regulation helps us to think through responses and put the brakes on more selfish things, instead acting in ways that benefit the relationship.  Managing stress depletes our ability to do this.

The paper itself didn’t offer ways to head this off, but if we think about the processes involved some ideas become apparent as to how to address the negative impact of stress outside the relationship.  The study found that external stress had an impact on negative relationship behaviors (increasing them), positive relationship behaviors (decreasing them), and the satisfaction with the relationship (decreasing it).  Interestingly, the smallest effect was on positive relationship behaviors.  The study authors thought this might be because the subjects were newlyweds and had a strong habit of doing positive things for each other.

This is a clue for managing the impact of external stress on relationships.  Positive behavior in relationships, such as doing things for each other, expressing praise, appreciation or love, or initiating physical affection, improve the general tone of a relationship.  The more we can make it a habit to include these positive things in relationships, the more of a buffer we create to protect the relationships from the stresses of the world.

Regular sharing of our lives and what is going on in our lives, both negative and positive, should also be a benefit to our relationships.  If we share the stress we are experiencing with our partners and receive support from them in response, we create a sense of connection while also better coping with the stress.  Often individuals feel like they need to “protect” their partners from the stress they experience day to day so they don’t share the negative things that happen.  Perhaps sharing the stress will in fact “protect” our partners from what is more dangerous – our own selfish natures.