AUSTIN, Texas — Want to stay in the “honeymoon” phase of your relationship forever? A new study finds stress can make even the most loving couples only focus on their partner’s most annoying habits.
Among heterosexual couples, researchers say ongoing stress causes men and women to become more critical of their partner’s negative behavior. These unpopular acts can include anything from a spouse breaking a promise, showing anger or impatience, or criticizing their partner. Overall, the team believes experiencing stress influences what behaviors the human mind focuses on in others.
“We found that individuals who reported experiencing more stressful life events outside of their relationship, such as problems at work, were especially likely to notice if their partner behaved in an inconsiderate manner,” says lead author Dr. Lisa Neff, of the University of Texas at Austin, in a media release.
Neff and co-author April Buck of Eckerd College surveyed 79 newlywed couples, having each pair fill out a short questionnaire each night for 10 days. The couples documented both their own and their partner’s behavior during that time. Before filling out the questionnaire each night, the participants also filled out a survey measuring daily stress levels and examining stressful events in their lives.
Dr. Neff explains that studying newlyweds is extremely important when it comes to relationship studies because newly married couples are more likely to focus on each other’s positive attributes and habits — which researchers call the “honeymoon” period.
“For many people, the past few years have been difficult – and the stress of the pandemic continues to linger,” Dr. Neff adds. “If stress focuses individuals’ attention toward their partner’s more inconsiderate behaviors, this is likely to take a toll on the relationship.”
It takes more than one bad day
Results show a single stressful day is not enough to cause couples to nitpick their partner’s bad habits. However, a long-term buildup of stress throughout someone’s life does cause them to focus more on their lover’s inconsiderate behavior.
Interestingly, the study finds couples under stress were still able to notice their spouse’s positive behavior and habits — stress simply intensifies their focus on the negative.
Dr. Neff notes that being aware that you’re under stress may help people avoid taking out their frustrations on their significant other. However, the study author says more research is necessary to see if couples are able to prevent stress from starting a fight over those little annoying habits that get under their skin.
“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 concludes, “but the fact that we found these effects in a sample of newlyweds speaks to how impactful the effects of stress can be.”
The study is published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.