- Chronic stress can interfere with partners' ability to perceive their significant others' needs.
- Daily stress can impede partners from providing support—likely because support provision requires energy and effort that a taxing day drains.
- Fortunately, stress doesn't always blind partners to each other's needs. Sometimes stress increases support provision.
Think about a time in your life when you felt more stressed than usual. (Unfortunately, that might be quite recently, given the seemingly relentless toll COVID-19 has taken on all of us.) Chances are that stress made you a little less patient, possibly a bit more careless, and maybe even a bit less sensitive to your surroundings—or other people’s perspectives.
Stress that’s above and beyond a tolerable amount (think: the kind that overwhelms our capacity to cope or that doesn’t ever seem to relent) is a known impediment to our physical and mental health. Not only does it elevate our risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, mar our sleep cycles, and make us more irritable and quick to react. It can also impair higher-order cognitive functions, like self-control, reasoning, and planning.
Well aware of stress’s negative effects on cognition, Lisa A. Neff and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin took a closer look at stress’s effects on how partners perceive and respond to one another’s needs. Their study will be published in the November 2021 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Neff’s team followed 121 heterosexual couples for two years who, at the study’s start, were married less than six months. After an initial questionnaire packet was completed at home and a few laboratory interviews were conducted shortly thereafter, each couple completed a diary survey every day for two weeks each year until the study’s completion. Daily surveys were completed by responding via a 5-point scale (1 = not at all; 5 = extremely) to questions assessing chronic stress over the past year, daily stress, perceptions of partners’ needs (e.g., “my spouse needed support today”), personal support needs (“I need support today”), and personal support provision (“I gave my spouse support today”).
What the study found
Chronic stress and daily stress had different effects on partners’ abilities to perceive and respond to their significant others’ needs. Chronic stress impaired men’s ability to perceive their female partners’ needs. Daily stress did not. But daily stress did impede men from providing support to partners they recognized as being in need.
These effects were less apparent in female subjects, who tended to display more consistent awareness of their husbands’ stress levels and minister to their needs irrespective of chronic stress or fluctuations in their daily stressors. This gender disparity, Neff and colleagues point out, is in line with prior research and theory suggesting that women—thanks to years of evolutionary conditioning and hormonal differences—are more inclined towards a tend-and-befriend response to stress than men are.
Why does stress impede some partners from perceiving and providing support?
Prior research has found that stress can undermine individuals’ abilities to differentiate emotions, which itself can complicate attempts to successfully interpret a partner’s feelings or distress cues. Stress has also been shown to increase our egocentricity and impair our ability to adopt the perspective of others. Providing support to another person, even someone we deeply love and care about, can also require a significant amount of energy. As a result, though it may ultimately be rewarding (since it helps us maintain closeness with people we love and can increase how competent and valued we feel when we succeed in helping them feel better), we may not feel up to the task if we’re weighed down with our own immediate stressors—or we may simply lack the resources to deal with another person’s problems thanks to the draining effects of our own chronic concerns.
That being said, stress doesn’t always undermine people’s ability to provide support to or attend to others’ needs. In fact, some studies suggest that stress can prompt both genders to provide even greater support to their partners than they would under less stressful circumstances. What’s more, providing support doesn’t always feel effortful. In fact, for individuals in longer-term relationships, the provision of support (and thus the temporary de-prioritization of one’s own needs) often becomes more habitual and reflexive over time, meaning it’s experienced as less energy-draining and therefore less taxing as a relationship progresses.
What we can learn from this study
The next time you feel that your partner is not adequately listening to, understanding, or addressing your needs, take a moment to consider the level of stress they may be under. This is not to say you should excuse chronic and repeated invalidation, blaming, or shaming from your partner. Nor is it to encourage swallowing your needs and never voicing them when your partner is undergoing a period of stress.
But if your partner happens to be weathering a particularly hectic stretch at work or school, wading through an onslaught of financial or family pressures, or coping with a new or worsening health issue, consider the fact that they may simply be a bit blinded to your needs by their own stressors (as opposed to being indifferent or uncaring). Keeping this in mind can help you take a step back, gain some perspective, and realize that someone who actually really loves you may not, after all, be any less invested in you (as you may fear).
Considering your partner’s perspectives and reasons for not being as sensitive to your needs can also keep you from engaging in behaviors that ultimately serve to undermine the stability of your relationship. Think: accusing, arguing, withdrawing from, or retaliating against your partner in some way solely based on what you assume they may be thinking, doing, or feeling. In this way, you help both your partner and yourself feel better in the long run.
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