Stressed-Out Newlyweds Are More Apt to See Spouse’s Flaws

People with higher stress levels tend to focus more on their partner’s negative behaviors, a new study suggests.

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Researchers asked newlywed couples to identify any recent stressful life events they experienced.Adobe Stock

Newlyweds may not have much of a honeymoon period if one or both partners is under a lot of stress. A new study, published September 26 in Social Psychological and Personality Science,?suggests that higher stress levels may make people dwell more on things they dislike about their spouse.

Stress has long been associated with marital conflict and behaviors that can put a strain on relationships, such as being overly critical, showing anger or impatience, or breaking promises. What the new study suggests is that stress may also impact how much spouses pick up on these negative behaviors.

“We found that individuals who reported experiencing more stressful life events outside their relationship, such as problems at work, were especially likely to notice if their partner behaved in an inconsiderate manner,” said the lead author,?Lisa Neff, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, in a statement.

For the study, researchers asked 79 heterosexual newlywed couples to identify any recent stressful life events they experienced. This could include a wide range of circumstances, such as starting a new job, moving to a new home, dealing with a serious illness or injury, or coping with the death of a close friend or family member.

Then, participants completed a series of 10 nightly questionnaires detailing their own behaviors as well as behaviors exhibited by their spouse.

One day of bad behaviors wasn’t enough to make one spouse hyperaware of their partner’s imperfections. But spouses who observed several days of negative behaviors did appear more tuned in to these traits in their partner.

People in the study didn’t stop seeing positive behaviors in their partners — their ability to detect good interactions remained constant under varying levels of stress. They just became much more focused on the negative when they were under stress.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove that stress directly causes certain behaviors or specific changes in how people perceive these behaviors. It’s also possible that results from heterosexual newlyweds might not reflect what would happen for couples after more years of a marriage or committed relationship or for people with different sexual orientations.

Even so, the results suggest that stress can be a problem within marital relationships even during the honeymoon period, when people are thought to be focused most intensely on the traits and behaviors that made them fall in love with and choose to marry their partner.

While it’s possible that being aware of the effects of stress could allow couples to correct their behavior and limit harm to the relationship, more research is needed to confirm this idea and to see how stress impacts people’s perceptions of their partner’s behaviors over time, Dr. Neff said.

“One direction would be to examine if the harmful effects of stress might be even stronger among couples no longer in the newlywed phase of their relationships,” Neff said. “But the fact that we found these effects in a sample of newlyweds speaks to how impactful the effects of stress can be.”

Earlier studies have found that for newlyweds in particular, unrealistic expectations at the start of a marriage can lead to less satisfaction and more conflict over time.

Research published in February 2017 in the Journal of Family Psychology has also linked high stress levels caused by issues with work, finances, and health to more intense conflict within marriages and more aggression and problematic behaviors between couples. The pandemic has likely exacerbated stress and heightened how people react to stressors, Neff said.

“For many people, the past few years have been difficult — and the stress of the pandemic continues to linger,” Neff said. “If stress focuses individuals’ attention toward their partner’s more inconsiderate behaviors, this is likely to take a toll on the relationship.”

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