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How Stressful Life Events Can Threaten New Relationships

Negative life experiences compel dangerous shifts in couples' attentional focus.

Key points

  • External life stressors can lead partners to focus on only their spouses' negative behaviors.
  • Focusing on a partner’s negative behaviors leads to marital dissatisfaction and turmoil.
  • This effect, recent research shows, can even disrupt new couples in their honeymoon period.
Andrik Langfield/Unsplash
Source: Andrik Langfield/Unsplash

Many assume that couples in new relationships enjoy a “honeymoon period” in which partners see one another through “rose-colored glasses” and overlook their shortcomings.

New research published this week in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that external stressors can create the opposite situation: Couples are likelier to notice and pay attention to their partner’s negative rather than positive behaviors.

Researchers Neff and Buck from the University of Texas, Austin, and Eckerd College analyzed data from 78 newlywed couples. The couples were primarily White, followed by Latinx and Asian American. On average, these couples were in their mid-to-late twenties. The respondents were all in first marriages, which had begun no more than six months before the study, and had no children.

Participants reported their external stressors (specifically, non-marital related stressors such as work difficulties or financial stressors). They also completed daily surveys tracking their own and their spouse’s positive (‘‘you showed an interest in the events of your spouse’s day’’) and negative behaviors (‘‘you criticized/blamed your spouse’’) over 10 days. The daily surveys were returned by mail to the researchers.

The researchers found some disconcerting results. Although these couples were generally happy and satisfied with their relationships, pairs that experienced significant external stressors became more sensitized to their partner’s negative behaviors and tended to report their partner’s negative behaviors more accurately.

The corresponding sensitivity to noticing positive behaviors did not occur in these couples that experienced external stressors. Moreover, daily hassles, such as a car breaking down, did not cause the same sensitivity to negative behaviors by one’s partner. Rather, more serious negative life experiences caused a shift in their attentional focus.

According to the authors, happy newlyweds usually “focus their attention on positive relationship information and overlook or minimize negative relationship information.” At the same time, “individuals with low self-esteem, insecure attachment, or high neuroticism often exhibit an increased vigilance for signs of a partner’s rejection.”

However, in the current study, external stressors caused generally happy couples to become especially attuned to their partner’s negative behaviors, even when the researchers controlled for factors such as self-esteem, attachment style, and neuroticism. The authors believed focusing on a partner’s negative behaviors can lead to relationship turmoil over time and potentially cause lasting damage to marital satisfaction.

The authors noted that this project involved a small sample of couples. However, they expect larger, more diverse samples to reveal even larger effects. They also contend that the effects observed in this sample may be underestimated because newlyweds may under-report their own negative behaviors and behaviors performed by their spouses.

The researchers concluded that stressful life events might initiate a negative relationship trajectory, even for individuals in new relationships.

References

Neff, L. A., & Buck, A. A. (2022). When rose-colored glasses turn cloudy: Stressful life circumstances and perceptions of partner behavior in newlywed marriage. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 19485506221125411. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/19485506221125411

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