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How Does Stress Impact Romantic Relationships?


Whatever kind of romantic relationship you may be in - whether you’re married, in a domestic partnership, or dating -  it’s inevitable that there will be stressful times mixed in with the bliss.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Michigan sets out to find out about the health effects of stressful relationships.

Rosie Shrout is the lead researcher on the project. She is a Ph.D candidate in the social psychology graduate program at UNR.

Shrout explained that the study looked at heterosexual married couples, who were married in 1986. The focus was on married couples because previous studies have shown that married couples tend to live longer than people who are not married.

"But, we still see health decline," she said, "As we age, health still gets worse over time. So, we focused solely on married couples to find what's accounting for those changes in their health."

She said the researchers wanted to see how health changed over the first 16 years of a marriage and whether conflicts within a marriage impacted that health.

"And what we ended up finding was that husbands enter marriage with better health than wives," Shrout said, "But over time the husband's health declined, whereas the wife's health stayed the same."

Shrout said that meant by the time a couple reached their 16th year of marriage their health was about the same. 

She said researchers then looked at the number of conflicts within the marriage. The conflicts included disagreements about money, children, in-laws, and leisure time. 

"What we found is the husbands who disagreed about more topics when they went into marriage had poorer health than the husbands who disagreed about fewer topics," she said, "But those husbands who disagreed less at first, over time those disagreements still ended up wearing on their health. So, by the 16th year of marriage, they had just about the same health as the husbands who disagreed more."

Shrout explained that the study looked at the self-perception of health rather than a physical ailments. She said those perceptions can be important in predicting illness and mortality.

For Shrout, the study shows that it is vital for couples to have life skills to combat stress - together.

"When couples are dealing with stress but not dealing with stress well, it can be really impactful and negative on their health," she said, "What it really comes down to is learning how to navigate those stressful situations,"

Shrout said no matter a couple's relationship status it is important that they identify stressers and learn to adequately cope with those stressers together through strong communication.

Katherine Hertlein is the director of the marriage and family therapy program at UNLV. She said many relationship problems stem from expectations. She said relationships do change when they go from dating to something more formal like marriage. 

"One of the common things I see in my practice is lack of conversation about what those expectations are," she said, "And then a lack of being able to endorse those expectations."

For example, she said people often expect their partners to read their minds and know what they wanted in a certain situation. She said people need to express their needs to their partners and not expect their partners to just know what they need.

Hertlein also said many problems in a relationship start from someone in the relationship feeling a lack of control or feeling neglected. She said conflicts over things like money and sex are often not really about those topics but about the larger issues of control or neglect.

"When you roll it back to that larger frame, then couples will figure out how to naturally solve the problem," she said, "They don't want their partner to feel neglected but they didn't realize that that's what that meant." 

To add to stressful situations are the cultural norms that surround men and women. Men are supposed to be stoic and not talk about their feelings. Women are supposed to be the repository for all family emotions, Hertlein said and that can cause a conflict. 

Shrout said men bottling up emotion could be why marriage conflicts have a negative impact on their health. 

Shrout said while this study looked at marriage heterosexual couples she would like to see more research on same-sex couples. She said as society changes and our ideas about relationships change social psychology will eventually catch up, but so far, there is not a lot of study on stress and health in same-sex marriages.

Katherine Hertlein, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy program, UNLV;  Rosie Shrout, Ph.D candidate in the social psychology graduate program, UNR

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.