What is the relationship between stress and strain

Stress and partnership

Stress is widespread in western industrial societies and is increasingly becoming a collective fate. Hardly anyone does not complain of stress at work, in everyday relationships, even in their free time. Stress seems to be omnipresent in the consciousness of the population and is no longer just a buzzword. But what exactly is stress?

The term stress has had different meanings in psychology in recent decades and has changed from the view of stress as a trigger for mental and physical illnesses, through stress as a reaction process, to the now generally accepted understanding of stress, according to which stress is a relationship between a person and represents their internal and external environment. This relationship is assessed as particularly demanding or exceeding one's own strengths and coping options. In doing so, a risk to one's own health, social adaptation or performance is perceived.

Stress therefore always represents an imbalance between internal and external demands on the person and their ability to react to them, although this imbalance does not necessarily have to exist objectively, but is experienced subjectively. Stress triggers the feeling in the person concerned that they are not up to the demands placed on them; she feels helpless and at the mercy, suspects negative consequences. Stress can be the result of excessive or insufficient demands.

In addition to negative stress (“distress”), positive, activating stress (“eustress”) can be distinguished. The latter plays a central role for optimal performance. Today it is known that the complete absence of stress (e.g. listlessness, lethargy, apathy) is just as unfavorable as too high a level, which can lead to blackout in the performance context. The best performance is achieved with a moderate level of stress.

What influence does stress have on the couple relationship and its development?

The results show significant negative effects of stress on the quality of the partnership and a higher risk of divorce in couples with a lot of stress. However, today we not only know that stress has a negative effect on the couple relationship, but also know the mechanisms that lead to the destructive effects. There are direct and indirect relationships.

Stress reduces the time together and thus undermines the "we-feeling"

Under stress the time available for the partner and the partnership is limited, which means that the time spent together - as an important basis for the functioning of the relationship - is missing. Couples who spend little time together due to stress have fewer opportunities for affective exchange, deeper, emotional communication and satisfying sexual encounters.

Worries, problems and intimate conversation contents cannot be addressed between the door and the hinge, but need common space and time in which the partners can meet and emotionally exchange in order to gain confidence in self-opening based on the feeling of the partner's physical and psychological presence to win. Hustle and bustle and little time are the worst opponents of this fundamental form of encounter in a partnership and lead to the creeping disintegration of intimacy and closeness. Stress often leads to clichéd, superficial affective exchanges (you kiss or hug your partner, but your mind is elsewhere). Stress affects the couple's “we-feeling”, undermines it and in this way damages the partnership in the long term.

Stress reduces the quality of communication based on partnership

Studies also show that stress leads to a significant deterioration in communication and thus causes long-term dissatisfaction with the partnership. Under stress, the quality of communication decreases by around 40%, as our own studies have shown under standardized conditions. Not only is there a decrease in positive communication signals (approval, praise, recognition, admiration, etc.), but in particular an increase in negative utterances and especially paraverbally negative conversation content, i.e. the tone of voice becomes irritable, sarcastic and unpleasant.

Paraverbal negativity is understood to mean utterances that are not verbal, i.e. negative in content (such as a criticism, an accusation, etc.), but through the intonation (emphasis, expansion of the words, mean undertone, etc.) and often purely through the Meaning ("you are like your mother") are negative. This form of negativity is particularly destructive because, on the one hand, it is difficult to react to it (the negativity is often not concretely tangible and determinable because no negative content is communicated verbally) and, on the other hand, the content of the negativity is significantly higher and usually gets under your skin. A couple's communication characterized by strong paraverbal negativity is extremely problematic and has proven to be a relevant divorce predictor (prediction factor) in our studies.

It is interesting that this destructive form of communication is particularly increased under stress when the partners deal with stress in an unfavorable way. This means that people who have insufficient stress management skills have a higher risk of communicating in this way with their partner under stress.

This closes the vicious circle. Stress leads to less favorable communication, makes a deep, emotional encounter impossible, in which self-opening and affective exchange can take place, and thus leads to the alienation of the partners, to the cooling of love and finally to the collapse of the partnership. The influence of stress can be compared to a corrosive process. The rust gnaws at the iron for a long time unnoticed until it breaks.

Stress can also become a burden on the relationship through a deterioration in the health of the partner

In addition to the negative influence of stress on communication, a deterioration in health under long-term stress is also frequently reported, which can be negatively related to the quality of the partnership. Stress-related disorders can lead to a loss of the quality of the partnership, and vice versa, a relationship quality that is reduced due to stress can increase the risk of psychological and physical disorders. Stress-related illnesses in a partner (cardiovascular diseases, ulcers, cancer, etc.) can result in significant restrictions in life (e.g. with regard to joint sporting, social, cultural or sexual activities) for the couple, increased care costs and greater consideration as well as seriously disrupting the balance in the partnership - which can drastically change the couple's life.

Stress-related health impairments can lead to dissatisfaction, strife and resignation in the partnership in the long term. Accordingly, negative correlations between an unfavorable somatic state or mental health and relationship satisfaction can be found in several studies, with somatic complaints overall appearing to be less relevant for negative couple dynamics than mental illnesses.

Stress unmasked

Stress also leads to unmasking, i.e. negative personality traits emerge more clearly and the partner often only becomes aware of them under stressful situations. Stress makes it harder to show its positive side. One often reacts irritably, sarcastically, dominant, reckless, rigid and selfish when one is stressed. This leads to disappointment, disenchantment, disillusionment and frustration in the partner. Again, this contributes to the emotional distancing between the partners and the breakdown of the relationship.

Stress predicts an unfavorable partnership

A 5-year longitudinal study carried out by us shows that couples with a lot of stress in everyday life had a significantly more negative course of their partnership over the course of the five years than couples with little stress or who were well able to cope with their stress appropriately. The relationship satisfaction of the stressed couples decreased significantly more than that of the other couples. In addition, the risk of divorce increased significantly.

Stress alone does not lead to the breakdown of the partnership - dealing with stress is crucial

Detailed analyzes of the partnership interaction show, however, that the negative effect of stress on the partnership can be buffered individually (through well-trained individual stress management resources), but that the way in which the couple deals with stress is particularly decisive. In all studies, the partnership (dyadic) coping with stress was found to be more relevant than the individual.

By dyadic stress management we mean the way in which couples invest together in problem solving and mutual emotion regulation when they are under stress (which affects both partners equally; e.g. birth of a child, moving house, etc.). who primarily only affects one partner (e.g. anger at work), give each other mutual support in order to effectively assist the other in coping with the stress. Specifically, communicative skills (expressing stress) are just as necessary for this as understanding, appreciation and empathy as well as concrete suggestions for support related to emotions and problems.

Many more recent studies not only show that satisfied or stable couples rely more on this common stress regulation, but that the partner's perception of stress is better, that the willingness to react is greater to support the partner or to tackle stress together and that more favorable forms stress management. Dyadic (partnership) coping with stress leads to a significantly better quality of the couple relationship and to a lower risk of divorce. When couples cope with stress in everyday life together, this strengthens their sense of togetherness, their knowledge that they can count on each other, mutual trust and the bond between the partners.

With these findings, stress research in couples has made an important contribution to understanding destructive relationship processes and divorce. Today we not only know which type of stress is particularly dangerous for the partnership and how it leads to the breakup of the couple relationship, but also how stress can be effectively managed individually and at the level of the couple (dyadic). It can be assumed that stress is the cause of dissatisfaction and separation or divorce for the majority of couples. Couples need to recognize stress as the enemy and work together to cope with it. If this does not happen for too long, a corrosive process takes place which undermines the partnership and, if triggered (critical life event, possibility of a new partnership, life changes, etc.) leads to separation / divorce. Stress in the partnership also has a negative effect on the development of the children and thus forms the breeding ground for disturbances for all family members.

What can one infer from these findings?

Couples should learn to cope better with everyday demands. Stress should be dealt with appropriately, both individually and as a couple, so that negative consequences for the partnership and other family members can be reduced or avoided. If one or both partners are not able to do this sufficiently, they should take a prevention course (see Paarlife).

further reading

  • Bodenmann, G. & Fux, C. (2013). What makes couples strong. Zurich: Observer Publishing.
  • Bodenmann, G. (2005). Relationship crises: Recognize, understand and manage. (3. Edition). Bern: Huber.
  • Bodenmann, G. (2006). Stress and partnership. Coping with everyday life together (4th edition). Bern: Huber.
  • Bodenmann, G. (2000). Stress and coping in couples. Göttingen: Hogrefe.

Information on Paarlife

see corresponding entry in the online family manual

Germany / Switzerland

see Paarlife website

Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Prof. Dr. Guy Bodenmann
University of Zurich
Psychological Institute
Binzmühlestrasse 14 / Box 23
8050 Zurich

Tel .: +41/26/3007653
Fax: +41/26/300 96 85


Created on June 6th, 2001, last changed on August 9th, 2013