June 28 (UPI) — How couples treat one another during times of stress affects the level of satisfaction in their relationships, according to an analysis published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Behavioral “interactions” between spouses are heavily influenced by each of their “enduring qualities,” or personality traits, and have the most effect on what each of them thinks of their relationship, the data showed.
The nature of these interactions, particularly during problem-solving conversations, appears to be governed by stress and how each individual processes it, the researchers said.
“Stress can be overwhelming — it occupies our thoughts and takes our energy,” study co-author Jim McNulty told UPI in an email.
“How two people treat one another during their interactions with one another is the primary way that they affect one another, and these behaviors can be particularly impactful during times of stress,” said McNulty, a professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
The findings are based on an analysis of data from 10 long-term studies that included 1,104 married couples.
In the studies, spouses were asked to rate their partners based on three enduring qualities, the researchers said.
The first quality was neuroticism, or their tendency to display negative traits such as anger, anxiety, self‐consciousness, irritability, emotional instability and depression.
The second was attachment anxiety, or their ability to feel secure in relationships.
And the third quality was attachment avoidance, or their level of emotional engagement or commitment in relationships.
Participating couples also were asked to rate their spouses level of engagement and cooperation during problem-solving discussions, and to describe levels of stress and marital satisfaction over a period of several years.
The enduring qualities of both spouses shape their behavioral interactions, which, in turn, predict changes in relationship satisfaction, the data showed.
For example, spouses who reported that their partners had higher levels of neuroticism and attachment anxiety tended to exhibit more “oppositional behaviors” during problem-solving.
This was exacerbated by stress and led to reduced marital satisfaction, researchers said.
The study was designed to test the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation model of change in relationship satisfaction, according to the researchers.
The model emphasizes members of couples’ vulnerabilities, experiences of stressful events and adaptive abilities in measuring marital quality and stability over time.
In this study, consistent with the model, the effect of both spouses’ qualities on satisfaction was entirely explained by their behavioral interactions.
The findings highlight the complex relationship between enduring qualities, stress and behavior and may provide insight into why up to half of marriages in the United States end in divorce, McNulty and his colleagues said.
Although most people know that clear and effective communication is important in relationships, it is particularly important during times of stress, which is also when it may be more difficult, they said.
“It can be easy to neglect our relationships during times of stress because we get preoccupied with the other things in our lives that are demanding our attention,” McNulty said.
“But these are also the times during which we need our relationships the most, so these are the times we need to be extra clear to our partners exactly what we are feeling and what we need,” he said.