How Stress Can Help a Marriage
by David Gibson
Well, it was bound to happen. Someone found something positive to say about stress in marriage!
It seems that even if it were possible to banish stress from the lives of newlyweds, doing so might not be all to the good. New research suggests that in handling moderate doses of stress early in marriage, couples gain practice with stress that should help them surmount the tougher forms of it that may enter their future lives together.
Does practice make perfect? Knowing they successfully have navigated stressful developments in the past gives couples needed confidence when stress arrives yet again on their doorstep, according to Lisa Neff and Elizabeth Broady, researchers in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas in Austin. Neff heads the Austin Marriage Project at the university.
For newlyweds, they point out, “a number of stressors tend to accompany the transition to marriage” such as relocation, starting a new job or completing educational programs.
It generally is thought that stress harms the quality of a marriage, Neff and Broady observe in a just-published report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Traditionally,” they add, “it has been argued that stressful contexts render preserving a healthy relationship more difficult.”
But Neff and Broady go so far as to say that “beginning a marriage with little to no stress robs the couple of the opportunity to put their relationship resources to the test, and this can leave couples at risk for marital declines when future stressors, such as the transition to parenthood, are encountered.”
For newlyweds “who possess adequate initial resources for coping” with stress (that is, couples who begin with good communication abilities, supportive social networks, a willingness to see things from the other’s perspective, etc.), the experience of moderate stress provides “a training ground in which to hone their coping responses,” the report states.
This experience helps couples “build additional resources for facing future stressful events.” They grow more resilient in the face of stress.
Couples Need Stress Management Skills
Neff and Broady take with utmost seriousness the stress that can invade a couple’s life. “High levels of stress” in marriage “may sap couples’ energy and drain coping resources,” the researchers comment.
Neff told me she thinks it is “important for couples to understand how stress may seep into marriage.” Much of her work, she said, “suggests that under conditions of high stress, the stress may overwhelm couples’ skills, even for couples who generally exhibit good relationship functioning.”
As a result, “marriages may benefit if couples work on improving their stress management skills” in order to prevent stress from spilling over harmfully into their marriage, she added.
Neff’s accent on stress management skills reflects her concern that couples experiencing high levels of stress often fail to utilize the communication or conflict-resolution skills they may have learned.
Some researchers find it ironic that “the very times when spouses need their relationship skills the most may be precisely the times when it is most difficult to draw upon those skills,” Neff writes in a forthcoming piece.
She explained to me that “if stress drains couples of energy and self-control resources, it will be that much harder for couples to ‘do the right thing’” in the face of stress, for example, not to “snap back when a partner is short with you, etc).”
When stress impedes a couple’s “capacity to engage in the behaviors they know to be beneficial for the marriage,” they may need to add stress-management techniques to their basic communication skills, Neff thinks. These skills encompass awareness of the sources of their stress.
Couples Should Identify Outside Stressors
Often, she notes, the stress that spills over into a marriage really comes from outside the marriage; perhaps a husband’s or wife’s work is the source of the stress. Neff writes:
“As a first step toward successful stress management, couples may benefit from insight into how stressors encountered outside of the marriage may influence their thoughts and behaviors within the marriage.”
For Neff, it is important that couples “identify the stressors surrounding their marriages” and “recognize the ways stress may influence” them as a couple. She accents the need to “equip couples with better coping skills for managing or even reducing their stress,” as well as the need to “ensure that couples gain practice applying these skills to small stressors.”
It seems to me that a challenge is posed for couples by this research – the challenge to realize that all couples experience stress, and to take stress seriously, and to ready themselves as much as possible to cope with it.
But the good news seems to be that the practice newlywed couples gain with small and moderate levels of stress may have a certain “inoculation” effect. It can build up their defenses against future stress and help prevent stress from damaging their happiness.
Neff and Broady propose in their report that “weathering small challenges can enhance the durability of the marriage over time.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.