You’re having a stressful week at work. You’ve had projects fail, presentations go awry, and to top it off, you just ended your week with a performance review that you don’t think went very well. As you arrive home, tired and just relieved to finally be there, you walk through the door and your partner immediately begins asking you about whether you picked up lettuce from the grocery store, dropped that package off at the post office, and adds, “Why didn’t you take out the recycling this morning?” You can’t believe it. Doesn’t he know the week that you’ve had? How could he be so uncaring? So, you don’t hold back: “Well, I see you didn’t do the dishes like you said you would. And is this what we’re having for dinner? Yikes.” Uh oh… this isn't how you want to act in your relationship! But we’ve all been there. What happened?!
What you’ve experienced is a phenomenon known as stress spillover—stress that we experience in one life domain (e.g., work) ‘spills’ out of that domain and into others (e.g., home life).1 And we know that spillover can have a detrimental effect on our relationships; individuals reporting higher levels of stress are less forgiving of their partners, more likely to criticize and blame their partners, less satisfied in their relationships, show poorer communication skills, and are more likely to have their relationships end.1,2 (Find more about the effects of stress spillover here.) In other words, relationships unfold in broader contexts, and many of the stressors in these contexts (e.g., problems at work, juggling kids, transportation issues) make it more difficult for partners to maintain happy and healthy relationships, regardless of the generally deep desire or motivation to do so.