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Two Key Ways That Stress Undermines Your Relationship

Everyone experiences stress and anyone who has had a stressful day at work knows how easy it is for that stress to find its way into your romantic relationship. But how does stress impact relationships?

A new study from the Department of Psychology at Monmouth University shows that individuals who experience stress were less likely to give their own partner compliments and were more likely to seek out interactions with attractive strangers.

Previous research had established stress’ negative impact on romantic relationships. However, it was not clear which relationship behaviors stress may influence or if there was truly a causal link. To address these issues, Monmouth University Psychology Professor Gary W. Lewandowski Jr., Ph.D., and Monmouth University alumna Annabelle Pedreiro, a psychology student at the time of the study, along with Brent Mattingly, Ph.D., from Ursinus College designed an experiment to determine ways that stress may undermine relationships.

The results, published in the Journal of Social Psychology, indicate that participants in the high stress condition gave their partners fewer compliments and were more likely to want to interact with attractive alternative partners. Specifically, participants under stress gave 15 percent fewer compliments and selected nearly 20 percent more attractive partners for the interaction task than those who experienced minimal stress.

These findings are one of the first to establish a causal link between stress and relationship behaviors. In particular, they show how individuals’ acute stress experiences undermine relationships by being less likely to compliment one’s partner and being more likely to pay attention to other potential partners.

The research article described above is available by request for members of the media. For a copy of the full study, contact Petra Ludwig at

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The researchers randomly assigned over 120 participants to either a high or low stress condition. Within the time limit, those in the high stress condition had to complete a series of 10 complex math problems by indicating which numbers came next (e.g., “87, 174, 261, 348, 435, _____, _____, _____” The answers are 522, 609 and 696 respectively-each number increases by 87). Those in the low stress condition did a similar, albeit much simpler, task (e.g., “1, 2, 3, 4, _____, _____, _____”).

Complimenting one’s relationship partner is positive relationship maintenance behavior that facilitates satisfaction, commitment and love. To see how stress influenced compliments, researchers gave participants two minutes to “list as many compliments as you can think of, that you can say to your partner the next time you see him/her.”

Paying attention to potential alternative partners is a negative relationship behavior that is associated with lower relationship satisfaction. Rather than ask participants if they pay attention to alternatives, researchers gave participants a task to see how they actually behaved. Researchers told participants they could participate in one-on-one “get to know you/acquaintance building exercises” with as many individuals as they like from a sheet picturing 12 single physically attractive potential partners. Picking more partners to interact with indicates greater attention to alternatives, a behavior that also links to cheating/infidelity.