- Stress usually makes relationships more tense.
- During the pandemic, stress ascribed to coronavirus restrictions actually increased resiliency in couples.
- Researchers expected this effect to dissipate over time, but it isn't.
A new study just published in Social Psychological and Personality Science suggested that when individuals in intimate relationships blamed extraordinary stress during the pandemic on the pandemic, rather than on one another, their relationships better withstood the onslaught of pandemic-related stressors. Prior research had indicated that when stressors originate outside of relationships, including work stress and financial uncertainty, relationships tend to suffer. In other words, the quality of relationships are typically undermined by extraordinary life stressors.
Earlier research indicated that on days when individuals experience more than usual stress outside a relationship, even when it has nothing to do with the relationship, they are "more likely to express criticism, anger, or impatience toward their partner and to appraise their relationship in a more negative light compared to days when they experience less stress."
Lisa Neff, Marci Gleason, Erin Crockett, and Oyku Ciftci (2021), researchers in Austin, Texas, therefore, expected that the myriad of stressors created by the pandemic would generally exacerbate tensions for couples and reduce relationship satisfaction for many. Scholars such as Pietromonaco and Overall (2020) had already predicted as much.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced couples everywhere to figure out how to manage together complex, evolving, and stressful circumstances involving combinations of childcare issues, school-related parenting responsibilities, working remotely, figuring out how to ensure the health and well-being of family and friends in the midst of an unfamiliar public health emergency, and financial uncertainties tied to volatile economic conditions.
The Texas research group anticipated that the pandemic's quality of salience—the fact that it is such a large, unavoidably affecting feature of life on earth for all human beings during this time—would mitigate some of the impacts of the pandemic on relationships.
Prior research evidence has suggested that prominent stressors affecting large numbers of people and are relatively uncontrollable provide opportunity for partners to attribute problems to stressful circumstances rather than intimate partners.
Interestingly, large-scale, uncontrollable stressors tend to mobilize coping and relational support efforts, especially when it is clear that the partner is not to blame for the stressor. On the other hand, it is not always so clear how to attribute causality when it comes to more common stressors, especially those that may be able to be tied to a partner's behavior, such as stressors related to finances.
Even still, research seems to indicate that even salient conditions of stress can only act as a relationship buffer, while stressors remain relatively low or moderate in their degree of collective intensity. It is thought that stress levels characterized as "high" by such studies have the potential to overwhelm couples' coping efforts and harm relationships. In such cases, the proverbial levee may not hold back the storm surge.
In any case, because of the salience, scope, and uncontrollability of the stress the pandemic created, this was as good an opportunity as there ever was to study the degree to which blaming a large, uncontrollable stressor like the pandemic for one's problems, rather than blaming one's partner, might mitigate the spillover of stress into relationships themselves.
Adjusting for average daily stress, the researchers devised an equation to calculate "stress spillover" that took into account couples' reported daily stress, daily relationship satisfaction, and the degree to which individuals attributed blame for their current stress on their partner.
One conclusion: "Notably, and supporting the notion that salient, uncontrollable stressors may encourage partners to place blame for their difficulties on the stressor, participants were generally more blaming of the pandemic for their problems."
Even further: "Similar to the results for relationship satisfaction, pandemic blaming attributions were not associated with perceived negative behaviors on days of lower stress. However, on days of higher stress, individuals who were more blaming of the pandemic reported enacting fewer negative behaviors compared to individuals who were less blaming of the pandemic."
Still, what about "moderate" stress that lingers? The Texas researchers examined whether the buffering effect of couples blaming the pandemic for their woes would persist in fending off toxic relationship dynamics that would take an even greater toll on relationship well-being. Prior research had suggested, and so Neff, Gleason, Crockett, and Ciftci (2021) expected, that any protective effects would dissipate as the pandemic wore on.
What Neff, et al (2021) did not expect was for this buffering effect, related to the pandemic's salience, to persist over significant periods of time.
The researchers wrote, "The protective effect of pandemic blaming attributions did not seem to dissipate over time."
Notably, on average, individuals were more likely to blame the pandemic than to blame themselves or their partners for problems participants were experiencing in the face of the pandemic. Importantly, blaming the stressor "appeared to enhance stress resilience."
This study is only the second to directly examine benefits of scapegoating large-scale, uncontrollable stressors for relationship difficulties.
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