Couples Benefit From Stress Early in Marriage, UT Researcher Finds

Newlyweds, take note: There just might be a silver lining in the next stressor coming your way.

UT researcher Lisa Neff has found that couples who face stressful events early in marriage are happier with their relationships later on.

Neff and her team at the Austin Marriage Project, an interdisciplinary lab in UT’s Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, studied 61 newlywed couples using surveys and videotaped interactions. Among those couples with better communication skills to start with, some reported moderate stress—such as moving or changing jobs—in the first six months of their marriages, and some did not. Over the next two years, the spouses who dealt with stress early on reported higher levels of marital satisfaction than those who did not face prior stress.

This finding flies in the face of the prevailing wisdom of Dr. Phil and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. These pop-culture icons—as well as many researchers and clinicians—argue that good communication skills are the key to a healthy marriage. While those skills are still an important foundation, they can only help so much, Neff says.

“You can have great communication skills, but those skills will fall apart under stress,” Neff, an assistant professor in UT’s School of Human Ecology, explains. “Imagine you have a bad day at work and then your partner snaps at you when you get home. It’s going to be a lot harder to hold your tongue than if you weren’t stressed.”

So the bad news is that communication skills don’t always hold up under stress. The good news, Neff says, is that dealing with moderate stress early in marriage can help couples become resilient later on.

This is termed the stress-inoculation effect. “It shows that good skills aren’t enough on their own—you have to practice using them,” Neff says.

It’s not a shocking finding, but it is an unusual one in a world where communication is still the buzzword of many therapists and policymakers, Neff says. “A lot of money and effort is devoted to teaching communication, but then we’re sending couples home to their stressful lives. Life doesn’t take place in a vacuum.”

Illustration by Mala Kumar


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