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“Give me a minute”...Before I Behave Badly

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. 

To explain how exactly stress infiltrates relationships, researchers argue that doing the right thing in our relationships is hard. Engaging in constructive, pro-relationship behaviors—like biting your tongue when your partner snaps at you, or discussing difficult issues in a calm and constructive manner—are effortful acts that require greater self-control compared to more selfish or destructive behaviors.3 Unfortunately, self-control is a limited resource that becomes depleted through use, making further acts of self-control all the more difficult.4 Self-control is like a muscle that can become fatigued over time, or a gas tank that is eventually emptied. To the extent that individuals exhaust their self-regulatory resources coping with their daily life stressors, they may come home burnt out and less able to respond constructively to their partners.

In a recent study, newlywed couples completed daily diaries (i.e., short, daily surveys) every night for 14 nights in which they provided information about their daily life stress (e.g., “yes” or “no” to experiencing stressors such as “a lot to do at work or school”), feelings of self-regulatory depletion (e.g., “I exerted a lot of ‘willpower’ to get through the workday.”), relationship satisfaction (e.g., “How satisfied were you with your relationship with your partner today?”), and relationship conflict (e.g., “yes” or “no” to “You had an argument with your spouse.”). On days of greater stress (i.e., days when stress was more than average for that individual), spouses reported feeling more depleted, and these feelings of depletion were found to account for decreases in relationship satisfaction and increases in argumentative behaviors on these high stress days.5 In other words, coping with daily life stressors can place a strain on relationships by draining spouses of the energy and resources needed to behave well, resulting in poor relationship outcomes. 

So even though our relationships likely matter more when we’re stressed and we likely need our relationships more when we’re stressed, they’re often not functioning optimally because of that stress. And it can happen to anyone—even the happiest of relationships with the most committed partners can begin to unravel under stress.6

So what can you do? Being aware of our stress and the impact it has on us can influence our later behaviors,7 so just by reading this article and acknowledging that your stress might impact your behaviors is a step in the right direction! In fact, me (Liz) telling my partner about this research has led us to enact the “I need just a minute.” strategy when one of us comes home depleted. And it works! Further, rest and doing activities that put you in a positive mood also replenish depleted resources.8,9 Thus, ‘taking five’ to relax and regroup when you’re feeling too run down to put in the effort that your relationship needs may save you from stress spillover and an unwanted tiff with your partner. 

April Buck, Ph.D. - Assistant Professor, Eckerd College
April’s research focuses on the effects of stress spillover on relationship functioning, individual and dyadic stress resilience, and techniques that couple members may employ in order to become more resilient to the harmful effects of stress.


Liz Keneski, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Liz's research centers around the intersection of romantic relationships, social networks, and health. Specifically, her research interests include social network support and romantic partner support processes, romantic relationship development and transition norms, and psychological and physiological resilience to relationship stress.Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


1Randall, A. K., & Bodenmann, G. (2009). The role of stress on close relationships and marital satisfaction. Clinical Psychology Review, 29, 105-11.

2Bodenmann, G., & Shantinath, S. D. (2004). The Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET): A new approach to prevention of marital distress based upon stress and coping. Family Relations, 53, 477-484.

3Rusbult, C. E., Yovetich, N. A., & Verette, J. (1996). An interdependence analysis of accommodation processes. In G. J. O. Fletcher & J. Fitness (Eds.), Knowledge structures in close relationships: A social psychological approach (pp. 63-90). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

4Baumeister, R. F. (2002). Ego depletion and self-control failure: An energy model of the self’s executive function. Self and Identity, 1, 129-136.

5Buck, A. A., & Neff, L. A. (2012). Stress spillover in early marriage: The role of self-regulatory depletion. Journal of Family Psychology, 26, 698-708. 

6Finkel, E. J., & Campbell, K. W. (2001). Self-control and accommodation in close relationships: An interdependence analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 263-277.

7Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J. (2012). Motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources all contribute to self-control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 943-947.

8Baumeister, R.F. & Heatherton, T.F. (1996). Self-regulation failure: An overview. Psychological Inquiry, 7, 1-15.

9Tice, D. M., Baumeister, R. F., Shmueli, D., & Muraven, M. (2007). Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 379-384.

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