Stressed? It May Make You Focus On Your Partner's Negative Behaviors

Stress can affect how people behave in a relationship, but how does it impact the way individuals see their significant others? Stressful life experiences may make someone more attuned to their partner's negative behaviors, researchers have found.

For their new study, published Monday in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, the researchers looked at the impact stress can have on a couple's relationship, specifically on how it may affect how people perceive their partners.

"Stressful life circumstances can destabilize the couples' relationships by increasing tensions and hindering positive exchanges between partners," they wrote. "Yet, stress may be linked not only to what individuals do in their relationship but also to what they see, as stress can shift individuals' attentional focus toward negative stimuli."

The researchers looked at 79 newlywed heterosexual couples, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) noted in a news release. They focused on newlyweds because the "honeymoon" phase is often when couples are still more focused on the positive aspects of each other.

The couples detailed the stressful events in their lives in a questionnaire. They then completed a survey every night for 10 days, documenting both their and their partners' behaviors.

Interestingly, the researchers found that those who experienced more stressful life events recently were actually "especially attuned to day-to-day fluctuations in their partner's negative behaviors, but not their partner's positive behaviors."

In other words, those who were stressed were more likely to see their partner's negative behaviors than positive ones. These include noticing behaviors such as showing anger, being impatient or breaking a promise, according to SPSP.

It's worth noting that this was not a result of a day of stress, but of accumulated "stressful life circumstances," SPSP noted. Though they weren't less likely to notice the positive behaviors, the idea that stressful life experiences can make people more easily aware of their partners' negative behaviors shows the kind of impact stress can have on a relationship.

"If stress focuses individuals' attention toward their partner's more inconsiderate behaviors, this is likely to take a toll on the relationship," the study's lead author, Lisa Neff of the University of Texas at Austin, said in the SPSP news release.

With the results of the study, couples may be more aware of just how stress can affect their perceptions of their partners, thus giving them a chance to make adjustments that could reduce the impact on their relationships. That said, Neff noted the need to look into the topic further, for instance, to see if the effect is "even stronger" once the honeymoon phase has passed.

"(T)he fact that we found these effects in a sample of newlyweds speaks to how impactful the effects of stress can be," Neff said.

The study is titled "When Rose-Colored Glasses Turn Cloudy: Stressful Life Circumstances and Perceptions of Partner Behavior in Newlywed Marriage."

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