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Relationships Under Stress

Does adversity strengthen, heal, or destroy relationships?

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It’s a virtual truism that you really don’t know another person until you see them under stress. As a personologist who has studied personality and personality disorders and as a psychotraumatologist who has studied disasters for over 30 years, I would agree with that conclusion (Millon & Everly, 1985; Everly & Lating, 2013). Disasters and other adverse life events can be highly stressful. They tend to bring out the best in people and the worst. It is certainly not too great of a leap to understand that adverse life events can have a profound effect upon relationships. The problem is the lack of agreement upon just how adversity, and especially disasters, affect relationships. Let me offer a potential reconciliation.


If you were to read the scholarly reviews and expert opinions on the effects of disasters upon relationships you would discover a wide variety of conclusions. All experts seem to agree that disasters and other adverse life events are stressful and would challenge almost any relationship. Beyond that, conclusions vary. Here is a sampling:

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  • Disasters may weaken relationships and predict divorces. This was the case after Hurricane Hugo (1989), Hurricane Andrew (1992), Hurricane Katrina (2005), and Hurricane Sandy (2012).
  • Disasters may strengthen relationships in that marriages increased after Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Sandy, and divorce rates declined after the Oklahoma City bombing (1995) and World Trade Center terrorist attacks (2001). Divorces also declined in Bergen County, New Jersey and Los Angeles, which were areas deemed adversely affected by, and perhaps similarly vulnerable to, the World Trade Center attacks.
  • Natural disasters may increase divorces, as noted after Hurricane Hugo, Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Katrina, and Hurricane Sandy, while acts of intentional violence diminish, as evidenced by the Oklahoma City bombing and World Trade Center terrorist attacks.
  • Disasters may strengthen relationships in the short-term, but may weaken relationships in the long-term. This is explained by analyzing the trajectory of a disaster. The short-term (weeks) is often seen as the “heroic phase” where people come together to overcome a common challenge. Inevitably, however, the heroic phase morphs into a “disillusionment phase” where bereavement and grief, posttraumatic stress, anger, guilt, self-medication, and even domestic violence can emerge. These reactions can attack even the best relationship at its core. Yet, in the cases where divorce rates are seen to increase, they tend to resume the pre-disaster trend after two years, and in the same geographic areas marriage can be seen to continually rise over the same two year period.

So authorities seem to be focusing upon the situational nature and timing of the disaster to determine what effects a given disaster may have upon relationships. But doing so still it leaves a somewhat conflicted picture. What’s missing from this approach is the person.

While it is true that situations greatly influence human behavior, reliance solely upon the situation to predict behavior is overly simplistic. It’s been said that disasters bring out the best in people and the worst in people. How is that possible that it can do both? Rather than predicting the psychological impact of any given disaster upon relationships by considering the interaction of the nature and timing of the disaster, perhaps a perspective that takes into consideration the people who are actually involved in the relationship would be useful. I mentioned earlier the old truism you don’t really know someone until you see them under stress. Gottman and Levenson (Gottman & Levenson, 2000; Gottman, 2004) conducted longitudinal studies of couples. They observed couples as they attempted to resolve a conflict in their relationship and followed up with them years later. The patterns that emerged allowed them to predict with over 90% accuracy over a decade later which couples would stay together and which would divorce. The difference between the successful couples and the unsuccessful couples turned out to be the balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict. The “magic ratio” is 5 to 1 such that for every negative interaction during conflict, there were five or more positive interactions. So it seems clear that it’s not just the situation, it’s also the people.


Now consider the work of famed personologist Theodore Millon. Not only did he agree with the truism you don’t really know someone until you see them under stress, he offered a means of predicting human behavior under stress. He called the perspective “syndromal continuity” (Millon & Everly, 1985). Simply said, whomever a person is in “normal” routine, low stress situations, that person becomes a virtual caricature of him/herself under stress. By caricature I mean an extreme or exaggerated version of oneself. So, a person who is normally quiet and shy may become avoidant, isolative, and withdrawing under stress. A person who is routinely kind and compassionate may become even more so under stress. Heroic people often become true heroes in disasters. A person who is normally aggressive may become abusive and violent. An insecure person may become very jealous. The person who is normally detail oriented and worry prone may become highly compulsive and obsessive. A person who is faithful and duty-bound is likely to become more so perhaps even rigidly so. Once the stress abates, the exaggerated characteristics also abate returning to baseline levels. Millon attributes this temporary transformation to two factors: first, the fact that personality is dimensional with stress causing an intensification along that personality continuum, and second, that stress often causes a disinhibition effect. Simply said, one’s behavior is likely to show inclinations to act impulsively and without regard for the situational consequences


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The key to saving a relationship that has been subjected to extreme adversity, even a disaster, resides in two steps.

First, consider the nature of the incident or disaster and how potentially toxic it might be. We believe that:

  • Human-made disasters, especially violence, may draw people together increasing cohesion due to a perceived need for protection (relationships could erode, however, when the threat is no longer present);
  • Death or injury to children tends to be more psychologically toxic. It strains relationships;
  • Chronic disasters, such as floods, erode well-being more so than acute incidents as people are more likely to get “stuck” psychologically and experience feelings of hopelessness;
  • Unexpected incidents are more toxic than expected incidents as the inability to prepare fosters a chaotic “every man for himself” response;
  • Incidents wherein there is a sense of betrayal that erodes interpersonal trust are more psychologically toxic as it becomes more difficult to trust others in the future.

These situational factors are stressful enough; don’t take them personally! Remember some personal reactions really are determined by toxicity of the situation. Some reactions are what you did, not who you are.

Second, remember that the “syndromal continuity effect” emerges as a coping mechanism. To prevent themselves from feeling helpless and out of control, people begin to show caricature-like versions of themselves because it’s what they know best. It’s a defense mechanism. To prevent this syndromal inclination from destroying a relationship consider the following:

  • If possible, delay making any major life or relationship changes until "the dust settles."
  • Syndromal continuity reactions are temporary.
  • Early recognition of them by both parties can temper their expression.
  • Understanding them as defense mechanisms may lead to finding more healthy and cooperative ways of of dealing with the stress of adversity, even disaster.
  • Finally, remembering the support of those closest to you is the best predictor of human resiliency.

(C) George S. Everly, Jr., PhD, 2018.


Everly, G.S., Jr. and Lating, J.M. (2013). Clinical guide to the treatment of the human stress response, Third edition. NY: Pearson.

Gottman, J. M. (2004). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2000). The timing of divorce: Predicting when a couple will divorce over a 14-year period. Journal of Marriage & the Family, 62(3), 737-745.

Millon, T. & Everly, G.S., Jr. (1985). Personality and its disorders. NY: Wiley.