High-stress levels can take a toll on the strongest relationships, and a new study indicates that personal life stressors can change how you view your partner. This study, published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal, suggests that stressed married people are more likely to note their spouse’s negative behavior than their positive behavior.

Lisa Neff, the lead author of the study, says that stress may be connected to what individuals do, but it’s also linked to what they see in their relationships. She added that she desires to understand how couples can maintain fulfilling and happy relationships over time. Typically, research focuses on how individual characteristics, like personality traits and relationships, could foresee positive relationship results.

However, Neff believes this viewpoint looks beyond the fact that relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. Couples are rooted in neighborhoods, workplaces, and social networks that mold how the relationship changes and develops over time. Neff says she wanted to know how stress from other life areas might spill over into relationships. When we’re experiencing more stress in life, whether it’s from work, financial difficulties, or troubles with family, how does that affect our interactions with our partner?

To answer this question, Neff and her colleagues asked 79 heterosexual newlyweds married for less than one year to complete a survey before going to sleep for 10 days. This survey gave a list of potential positive and negative behaviors they might have engaged in when talking to their partner that day. The survey asked them to indicate if they or their partner engaged in any listed behaviors. By conducting the study this way, researchers could compare one partner’s perceptions to the other’s self-reported behaviors.

Neff says her team found that those who were more stressed gave better descriptions of identifying day-to-day changes in their partner’s negative behavior than those who were less stressed and tended to downplay their partner’s negativity. Individuals’ stress levels didn’t affect how accurately they perceived day-to-day fluctuations in their partner’s positive behaviors.

You may wonder why researchers used newlyweds instead of couples who have been married longer. Neff says that during the honeymoon phase, couples tend to focus on the positive and undermine the negative, so the results show how powerful stress can be. One stressful day wasn’t enough to force one spouse to focus on the other’s behavior, but life circumstances and stressful days could produce that result.

So how do you ensure that you don’t let stress build up and damage how you view your partner? Neff and marriage counselors advise how to stop stress from ruining your relationship.

Know what triggers you.

Knowing how stress affects you at the moment is essential. Research shows that when people know what stresses them, they can understand that stressors may be changing their views of their relationship, and they can try to correct it. To understand what triggers you, you should focus on situations that bring a strong emotional response. Once you recognize those situations and what triggers you outside of your relationship, you can learn to express them to yourself and your partner.

Take time to decompress.

Don’t spoil your relationship with your bad mood. Instead, take some space away from your partner. Neff highlighted that a study from 1989 found that if a person walked away from their partner and took time to recover from a high-stress work day, their stress was less likely to make a dent in the relationship. It would help to let your partner know it’s not them, it’s you. If your partner knows you’re having a hard day, they can make a buffer for you.

Don’t make accusations.

This type of constant stress spillover and bias can lead to spouses’ blaming each other for their issues. The stressed spouse could see their problems and combine them with relationship troubles or redirect their anger toward their partner. In a way, your partner is like your mirror, allowing us to look inward to discover your insecurities, fears, needs, and vulnerabilities. When we don’t do the challenging work of facing our problems, we tend to project our frustrations and needs onto others, or we start expecting others to meet needs that we should address internally.

Learn how to manage your stress.

Stress management tactics should be a front-line defense to reduce stress spillover. Standard stress management practices include meditation, prayer, journaling, or exercise. Monitoring your stress levels and developing emotional intelligence are also helpful and essential.

Seek professional help.

If stress spillover is a substantial issue in your relationship, it may help to get another perspective that’s not necessarily from your friends. It would be best if you worked with a professional trained in modern-day relationship issues and couples dynamics. Working with someone who’s only sharing their experience instead of data-driven perspectives on what helps couples navigate differences and biases may do more harm than help. An effective couples therapist can validate numerous couples, even those in the honeymoon phase.

Stress is an emotion that everyone will feel in their life. It’s not one you can easily escape. People encounter many stressors daily, from financial strains to family troubles and problems at work. However, it would be best if you didn’t let that stress affect your relationship with your spouse. Your spouse wants the best for you, they don’t want to see you stressed out, and they certainly don’t want you to take your stress out on them.

This study aimed to find out stress in other areas of life can affect a relationship. It found that those who are more stressed can better identify their partner’s negative behaviors versus those who are less stressed and downplay their partner’s negative behavior. When you’re not stressed, you don’t want to believe that your spouse is behaving negatively toward you and instead will attribute their behavior to something else. However, when you’re under pressure, you tend to pick up every detail and notice when your spouse’s behavior has changed. When stressed, try your best to regulate your emotions and not take them out on your loved one.

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