Regardless of quality or longevity, most people who have been in a relationship have at one point or another considered what circumstances might contribute to infidelity. They are justifiably concerned about avoiding such situations in order to reduce the risk of compromising their relationship.
Although not every relational risk factor is foreseeable or manageable in every case, according to research, there is one that is. Simple and straightforward, here it is in a word: stress.
Stress Leads to Straying
Everyone at one time or another is impacted by feelings of stress. Whether personally or professionally, there are times where you are negatively affected by circumstances beyond your control. People under stress often behave badly—even with their partners. Why? According to research, stress may contribute to a negative view of one´s current romantic relationship, which may increase the allure of relational alternatives.
Research by Lewindowski et al. in a study called “Under pressure” (2014) studied the impact of acute stress on relationship behaviors.[i]They found that stress increases the likelihood that partners will pay attention to relational alternatives. They found that participants under stress provided fewer assurances to their current partner, and were more attentive to attractive alternatives.
The authors note that these results suggest that acute stress decreases positive relationship behaviors, and increases behavior that could harm the relationship. The authors suggest a few reasons for the results they found.
Stress Transforms Rose Colored Glasses Into Reading Glasses
New relationships usually involve happily overlooking or downplaying a partner´s flaws or annoying habits. Viewed through a rose-colored lens, negative attributes and behaviors do not appear to be cause for concern. Indeed, even behavioral red flags are often viewed through a muted lens of affection and infatuation.
With some couples, however, there will come a point when the bloom is off the rose. When individuals begin to view their partners with a sharper perspective, they may become critical rather than comforting. This may cause them to provide their partner with fewer compliments and more complaints, which may negatively impact the relationship. One of the ways this shift in perspective occurs, is through stress.
Stress Creates Negative Perspective
Lewindowski et al. note that in a relationship, assurances (compliments) contribute to relational maintenance. Their results, linking acute stress to assurances, suggest that stress may make it more difficult to engage in positive behaviors within a relationship. They cite one reason as the fact that stress can lead individuals to evaluate their relationship negatively, which may interfere with the ability to have positive thoughts about their partner.
How does this work? They explain that stress may elicit negative emotions, which can interfere with the ability to call to mind positive things about their partner—which we can assume would decrease the desire to make positive comments.
The authors also note, however, that when people are experiencing acute stress, even when they might have the desire to say all the right things, they do not have the ability. Apparently, individuals under stress have a hard time avoiding undesirable responses.
They recognize that in their study, the “desirable” response would be to say nice things about their partner. Under stress, however, they note that it might be harder to come up with assurances if undesirable reactions, such as considering partner´s negative qualities, come to mind.
Stress Interferes With the Ability to Consider Consequences
When it comes to straying, stress also interferes with the ability to consider consequences. Most partners in committed relationships will at one time or another be presented with a romantic alternative, perhaps one they might have considered if they were single. At this point, the decision about whether or not to engage, even in conversation, involves a balance of risks and rewards.
In most cases, committed partners avoid interacting with attractive alternatives, for fear of losing their current partner. Some people are even careful to prevent negative optics, recognizing the potential consequences of creating even the appearance of impropriety.
Lewindowski et al. note that with respect to attention to relational alternatives, acute stress possibly decreases the ability to consider potential negative consequences. This is important when paired with the reality that when one has a negative view of his or her current partner, potential substitutes look more appealing.
As a caveat, Lewindowski et al. point out that their study only examined non-marital relationships, which they acknowledge generally involve less relational commitment than marriages. They explain that this is important given the association between commitment and stress.
Reduce Stress to Increase Relational Satisfaction
Regardless of the length of your relationship, taking active steps to decrease stress can increase relational quality. If you want a stable, satisfying union, it is well worth the time and effort necessary to attend to the psychological needs of your partner, as well as yourself.
[i]Gary W. Lewandowski, Brent A. Mattingly, and Annabelle Pedreiro, “Under Pressure: The Effects of Stress on Positive and Negative Relationship Behaviors,”The Journal of Social Psychology 154 no. 5, 2014, 463-473.