Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Some people believe that relationships work when both partners are committed and willing to put in the effort. Yet, this perspective overlooks the important reality that some situations that couples find themselves in make it more difficult for them to maintain a happy and fulfilling relationship. A relationship, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. Negative external stressors like work, family, health or financial problems not only present couples with more challenges to deal with, but they also lead partners to engage in more negative relationship behaviours (e.g. losing their patience more quickly, not wanting to communicate), a phenomenon referred to as ‘stress spillover’.
For example, research by Neff & Karney (2004) found that when stress was low, partners were able to generate more charitable explanations for each other’s negative behaviours, but when stress was high the same individuals were more likely to blame their partners for those same behaviours.
Of course, individuals cannot always influence the external stressors they are exposed to in life (e.g. illness, unemployment, death of a loved one). However, sometimes additional stress on a relationship is the result of our own decisions, such as taking a promotion that will involve more responsibility and time; or deciding to buy a large house which requires repayment of a substantial mortgage. Unfortunately, often we do not have the foresight to imagine how these sorts of decisions will impact on us and our relationship in the future.
So, while relationships can become stronger by overcoming challenges, placing strain on your relationship by failing to consider how your broader decisions will impact on it may not be the wisest thing to do. Excessive stress depletes your resources and makes it harder to be a kind and loving partner. This suggests that to maximise your chances of having a long satisfying relationship, blind faith in the adage that ‘love will conquer all’ may not be a clever idea.
Instead, it may be useful to consider the following questions at key moments in your relationship:
What impact will the decisions I am making now have on my future self and our relationship?
Is my partner’s less than ideal behaviour partly a result of the stresses that they are currently facing?
What is the best way for me to respond?