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Is Stress Killing Your Relationship? Why You're Not Alone

Research helps us understand how stress spills over and harms our relationships.

Max Pixel
Source: Max Pixel

Stress. Does that word define your life right now? If so, you're not alone. We all experience stress. It might be something major: a new move, a health concern, a toxic relationship. But often it is something minor: a busy week at work, a kid home sick on a day filled with meetings, the post-work/school rush to put dinner on the time, the last minute request from a boss. These small daily hassles can add up and have large consequences over time for our relationships. Why? Stress in other areas of our lives spills over into our personal relationships. Work-life conflict is a top source of stress today and research has shown over and over again that we bring the stress and strain from work and other areas of our lives home with us, hurting our personal relationships.

How external stressors affect relationships

Stress spills into our personal lives in many ways, affecting the quality of our close relationships.

When people are stressed, they become more withdrawn and distracted, and less affectionate. They also have less time for leisure activities, which leads to alienation between partners. Stress also brings out people’s worst traits, which may lead their partners to withdraw as well, because who wants to be around someone when they are acting their worst? Over time, the relationship becomes more superficial (less we-ness and involvement in each other’s lives) and couples become even more withdrawn, experiencing more conflict, distress, and alienation in the relationship.

Stress depletes people, sapping their cognitive resources. It also increases vigilance. This means when you are stressed you are more likely to notice negative behaviors and less able to stop yourself from reacting badly to them. It also means that you are less patient and less able to give your partner the benefit of the doubt when they behave badly. Stress also makes people more irritable and hostile, which increases the likelihood of fighting. When fighting, stress may make people less able to listen or show interest and empathy. In short, stress turns nonissues into issues and prevents your ability to deal with the issue constructively.

Stress also affects our physical and mental health and places additional strain on the relationship.

Stress can particularly bad for couples who are in rocky relationships because these couples tend to be more strongly affected by daily events (good and bad) than couples in more stable relationships. However, even for healthy, stable relationships, stress can cause people to see problems in their relationships that aren’t actually there.

A couple who typically communicates well may see their communication break down over a week that was particularly stressful and as a result of the stress and sapped resources, they feel like there are real communication problems in their relationships. Likewise, a couple who is typically affectionate may have little affection when stressed and as a result come to believe that they have an issue with affection and time together, rather than recognizing it is just the stress. These misperceptions can create dissatisfaction with otherwise healthy relationships and lead people to try to solve the wrong problem (communication, affection) rather than identifying and solving the actual source of the issue (stress).

So how do we fight this stress spillover? See my post on 10 ways to fight stress spillover.


Bolger, N., DeLongis, A., Kessler, R. C., & Wethington, E. (1989). The contagion of stress across multiple roles. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 51(1), 175-183.

Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2004). How does context affect intimate relationships? Linking external stress and cognitive processes within marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(2), 134-148.

Randall, A. K., & Bodenmann, G. (2009). The role of stress on close relationships and marital satisfaction. Clinical psychology review, 29(2), 105-115.

Randall, A. K., & Bodenmann, G. (2017). Stress and its associations with relationship satisfaction. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 96-106.

Repetti, R. L. (1989). Effects of daily workload on subsequent behavior during marital interaction: The roles of social withdrawal and spouse support. Journal of personality and social psychology, 57(4), 651.

More from Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.
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