Please stay tuned here for a multitude of results over the next several years, including those from the Austin Marriage Project as well as the Toledo Project on Marriage and Family Development.
Do optimistic expectations facilitate or hinder adaptive responses to relationship challenges? Traditionally, optimism has been characterized as a resource that encourages positive coping efforts within relationships. Yet, some work suggests optimism can be a liability, as expecting the best may prevent individuals from taking proactive steps when confronted with difficulties. To reconcile these perspectives, the current article argues that greater attention must be given to the way in which optimistic expectancies are conceptualized. Whereas generalized dispositional optimism may predict constructive responses to relationship difficulties, more focused relationship-specific forms of optimism may predict poor coping responses. A multi-method, longitudinal study of newly married couples confirmed that spouses higher in dispositional optimism (a) reported engaging in more positive problem-solving behaviors on days in which they experienced greater relationship conflict, (b) were observed to display more constructive problem-solving behaviors when discussing important marital issues with their partner in the lab, and (c) experienced fewer declines in marital well-being over the 1st year of marriage. Conversely, spouses higher in relationship-specific optimism (a) reported engaging in fewer constructive problem-solving behaviors on high conflict days, (b) were observed to exhibit worse problem-solving behaviors in the lab—particularly when discussing marital issues of greater importance—and (c) experienced steeper declines in marital well-being over time. All findings held controlling for self-esteem and neuroticism. Together, results suggest that whereas global forms of optimism may represent a relationship asset, specific forms of optimism can place couples at risk for marital deterioration.
Wives are considered more effective support providers than are husbands. As support promotes healthy physiological functioning, husbands should derive greater health benefits from spousal support than do wives. Yet, a growing literature indicates that men are relatively insulated from the physiological consequences of marital interactions, suggesting that men may not reap the benefits that support can provide. To examine gender differences in physiological responses to spousal support, couples completed a 6-day diary task that assessed daily support exchanges and diurnal cortisol slopes. On days of greater spousal support, wives exhibited steeper cortisol slopes, whereas husbands exhibited flattened cortisol slopes. Furthermore, for husbands, the association between daily support and cortisol was moderated by problem-solving efficacy; the less efficacious husbands perceived their problem-solving abilities, the flatter their cortisol slopes on high support days. All results held controlling for daily stress and marital satisfaction. Thus, support may incur costs for husbands’ health.
Stressful experiences external to a marriage (e.g., work stress, finances) are often associated with poor relationship functioning and lowered marital satisfaction, a phenomenon called stress spillover. To date, however, little attention has been devoted to understanding the specific mechanisms through which stress may lead to maladaptive relationship patterns. Drawing from theories of self-regulatory depletion, it was predicted that coping with external stress is an effortful process that consumes spouses’ regulatory resources, leaving spouses with less energy to effectively respond to their relationship issues. The current study relied on a sample of newly married couples to examine whether self-regulatory depletion may account for the link between external stress and relationship well-being. Couples were asked to complete a 14-day daily diary that assessed their daily stress, their state of self-regulatory depletion, their marital behaviors, and their daily marital appraisals. Within-person analyses revealed that, on average, couples experienced stress spillover, such that on days when their stress was higher than usual they reported enacting more negative behaviors toward their partner and endorsed less positive appraisals of the relationship. Further analyses confirmed that self-regulatory depletion accounted for a majority of these spillover effects. These findings suggest that even happy couples may find it difficult to engage in adaptive relationship processes under conditions of stress.
As all couples experience stressful life events, addressing how couples adapt to stress is imperative for understanding marital development. Drawing from theories of stress inoculation, which suggest that the successful adaptation to moderately stressful events may help individuals develop a resilience to future stress, the current studies examined whether experiences with manageable stressors early in the marriage may serve to make the relationship more resilient to future stress. In Study 1, 61 newlywed couples provided data regarding their stressful life events, relationship resources (i.e., observed problem-solving behaviors), and marital satisfaction at multiple points over 2 1⁄2 years. Results revealed that among spouses displaying more effective problem-solving behaviors, those who experienced moderate stress during the early months of marriage exhibited fewer future stress spillover effects and reported greater increases in felt efficacy than did spouses who had less experience with early stress. Study 2 examined stress resilience following the transition to parenthood in a new sample of 50 newlywed couples. Again, spouses who experienced moderate stress during the early months of marriage and had good initial relationship resources (i.e., observed support behaviors) reported greater marital adjustment following the transition to parenthood than did spouses who had good initial resources but less prior experience coping with stress. Together, results indicate that entering marriage with better relationship resources may not be sufficient to shield marital satisfaction from the detrimental effects of stress; rather, couples may also need practice in using those resources to navigate manageable stressful events.
Link to full article