Stress

Can Your Relationship Survive Traveling Together?

The risk of stress spillover, and the chance to build resilience.

Posted Jun 30, 2016

Peter Bernik/Shutterstock
Source: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

It’s summer time! That means warm weather, sunny days, barbeques and, for many of us, vacation. Summer vacations represent breaks from our everyday—chances to unplug and relax by leaving our normal lives behind us for a week or two. Millions of travelers are taking to the air, water, and roads with their family, friends, and romantic partners with hopes of unwinding.

However, travel can be a stressful experience. I know I have had some pretty intense arguments with my loved ones in the wake of the sleep deprivation, time pressure, and uncontrollable circumstances (cancelled flights, anyone?) that come with travel. I want to explore some of the ways that minor stressful events, such as vacation travel, can affect our romantic relationships.

Stress, in general, can have a negative influence on our romantic relationships—even when that stress is unrelated to the relationship itself. This is known as stress spillover (e.g., Neff & Karney, 2009; Neff, 2012), and it occurs when stressors outside of a romantic relationship, such as job pressure, money concerns, or family demands, predict reductions in individuals’ feelings of satisfaction in their relationship. Neff and other researchers have demonstrated that such stressful experiences can predict romantic partners—spouses in most research—being less responsive to each other, communicating less effectively, and even being less forgiving of each other’s mistakes and transgressions (see Neff, 2012 or Karney & Neff, 2013 for a review). Over time, these unpleasant patterns can erode relationship happiness and predict an increased risk of the relationship ending.

However, Neff and Broady (2011) have begun to investigate the positive effects that stress can have on romantic couples. Specifically, they’ve tested the idea that encountering small stressors over time, like the stress that goes hand in hand with travel, can actually have a protective effect on relationships. The idea, basically, is that practice makes perfect: If a couple comes up against small stressors early in their relationship, they can learn and practice the coping skills to handle stress in general without it negatively impacting their connection. Then, when bigger stressors come along, the couple is better prepared to deal with them, and their relationship doesn't take as hard of a hit.

This idea of smaller stressors enhancing resilience has also been applied to individuals as well as relationships, and similarly, practice with small stressors has been found to be important for building one’s individual coping resources—and associated with greater resilience when faced with more significant challenges (see Neff & Broady, 2011 for a review).

This stress resilience model would suggest, then, that taking on the stress of summer travel with your partner could actually benefit your relationship later, as well as you as a person. So go on, book that beach trip!

  • Karney, B R., & Neff, L. A. (2013). Couples and stress: How demands outside a relationship affect intimacy within the relationship. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships (pp. 664-684). Oxford University Press.
  • Neff, L. A. (2012).  Putting marriage in its context: The influence of external stress on early marital development.  In L. Campbell & T. J. Loving (Eds.), Interdisciplinary Research on Close Relationships: The Case for Integration (pp. 179-203). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. 
  • Neff, L.A., & Broady, E. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 1050-1067.
  • Neff, L.A., & Karney, B. R. (2009). Stress and reactivity to daily relationship experiences: How stress hinders adaptive processes in marriage. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97, 435-450.