It’s not enough for two people to be well-suited for each other: today’s relationships need to be able to withstand a diverse set of potentially toxic pressures. Work stress, money trouble, unexpected losses, transitions, and expectations from friends and family… for a relationship to be successful, couples need habits that help them manage the challenges that come from everyday life.
What tactics do happy couples use to protect their relationships, in the face of everyday stress?
Relationship scientists are eager to identify the specific behaviors that not only help couples survive daily hassles and challenges, but help them thrive despite pressures and stressors from outside of the relationship. If strained, some couples rebalance quickly; if burdened, they somehow keep their relationship safe. How?
- They seek the big picture. The term psychological distancing sounds oddly negative, but it’s actually an adaptive tactic under stress that promotes relationship well-being by encouraging perspective taking. Instead of making a judgment about your relationship by concrete, in-the-moment events like a conflict or argument, psychological distancing lets you see the big picture (Solomon et al., 2016), and frees up your reasoning to make more positive assessments of your relationship.
- They manage the physiological stress link. If one person in a couple is experiencing stress, the other person is too. Research shows that cortisol (a stress hormone) co-varies in romantic partners, and that women’s cortisol stress resonance is synchronized to the daily cortisol secretion of their partners (Engert, Ragsdale, & Singer, 2018). In other words, couples are physiologically linked when it comes to stress. Given that stress is not an isolated experience in a romantic relationship, couples that recognize the shared experience of stress could be better off, setting in motion intervention behaviors (e.g., exercise, sleep) for both members of a couple during one person’s stressful time.
- They work on being mentally present. Are you thinking ahead to a goal in the future, writing a mental to-do list, or multi-tasking when your partner talks? Mindfulness is a helpful tool during relationship stress, predicting less emotional reactivity, better anxiety levels after a conflict, and stronger user of certain positive communication skills (Barnes et al., 2007). Couples who exercise mindfulness in their interactions may be supporting each others’ ability to cope with life’s many stressors.
- They express gratitude. Simple habits of showing your partner that you appreciate him or her can go a long way towards strengthening a relationship. Recent research identifies spousal gratitude (i.e., feeling appreciated by your partner) as a protective factor against divorce (Barton, Futris, Nielsen, 2015). Giving gratitude and receiving gratitude appear to be central factors that stabilize and nurture a relationship.
- They help each other be happy. It’s probably no surprise that happier people tend to be healthier, but did you know that people with healthy partners tend to be healthier too? Evidence suggests that the energy people devote to making their partner happy can benefit their own health just as much as seeking your own happiness (Chopik & O’Brien, 2017). Partner happiness is a unique predictor of your own health. This finding underscores the emotional and physical connection between two committed romantic partners.
- They foster their outside friendships. Romantic partners turn to each other for support, which is important, yet the healthiest couples also encourage each others’ friendships and help each other maintain strong social connections outside of their marriage. Friends are important sources for support, and satisfying social networks can actually lessen the link between daily marital stress and individual cortisol responses (Keneski, Neff, & Loving, 2017); meaning, having good friends can lower your stress during tough times, which ultimately, may help support the health of your relationship.
The long-term benefits of healthy romantic relationships are many (Braithwaite & Holt-Lunstad, 2017), yet the danger of daily stress is no joke. Stress is a common experience among couples, and a substantial body of literature points to the fact that stress is adverse to relationship satisfaction (Randall & Bodenmann, 2017). There’s no one way to manage stress, yet evidence highlights the above tactics as predicting positive outcomes, suggesting they might safeguard some relationships.