Does work stress or a worrying health problem seem to make you suddenly pick up on all your partner’s little flaws? You’re probably not alone! Science confirms that the stresses of everyday life can make people focus more on their romantic partner’s negative behavior. Most couples would agree that a stressful situation can lead to spats between partners. From a sick child to a missed plane, although some people may find it difficult to admit, it is often tempting to “blow off steam" or blame the other person when faced with events that cause stress. But this apparently isn’t just reflected in the interactions between two people.
According to recent research, experiencing stress can make us focus more on our partner’s negative behavior, undoubtedly exacerbating our annoyance with them. To reach these conclusions, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin surveyed 79 newly married heterosexual couples. The participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire every night over a 10-day period. Somewhat like a logbook, the exercise consisted of noting the stressful events experienced during the day, as well as describing the quality of interactions with their partner.
At the end of the experiment, the researchers found an increased tendency to focus on their partner’s negative behavior among people who were most exposed to stressful situations. The negative actions being monitored included a spouse breaking a promise, showing anger or impatience, or criticizing their partner.
Of course, one stressful day is not enough to make someone zero in on their partner’s negative behavior, the researchers say. The study instead suggests that a longer accumulation of stressful life circumstances could lead to this shift in focus. “For many people, the past few years have been difficult — and the stress of the pandemic continues to linger. If stress focuses individuals’ attention toward their partner’s more inconsiderate behaviors, this is likely to take a toll on the relationship," explains the study’s lead author, Dr. Lisa Neff of the University of Texas at Austin. “One direction would be to examine if the harmful effects of stress might be even stronger among couples no longer in the newlywed phase of their relationships. But the fact that we found these effects in a sample of newlyweds speaks to how impactful the effects of stress can be," she concludes.