© 2011 American Psychological Association 0022-3514/11/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0023809
Stress Resilience in Early Marriage: Can Practice Make Perfect? Lisa A. Neff and Elizabeth F. Broady
University of Texas at Austin
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 21⁄2 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. Keywords: stress, relationship satisfaction, transition to parenthood, resilience, spillover
Marriages unfold within broader environmental contexts that at times test the durability of the relationship. When the marital context contains numerous stressful life events, such as work stress or financial difficulties, marriages often suffer, a phenomenon referred to as stress spillover (Randall & Bodenmann, 2009; Repetti, Wang, & Saxbe, 2009; Story & Bradbury, 2004). For example, between-subjects comparisons of couples experiencing high versus low levels of external stress indicate that couples facing more severe stress experience greater declines in their marital satisfaction over the early years of marriage (Bodenmann, 1997; Karney, Story, & Bradbury, 2005). Similarly, longitudinal research examining within-subject changes in stress and marital satisfaction over time has revealed that spouses’ marital satisfaction tends to be lower after periods during which spouses faced many stressors and higher after periods that were relatively low in stressors (Karney et al., 2005; Neff & Karney, 2004, 2007). Thus, a key message emerging from the stress and marriage literature is that stressful contexts adversely impact marital quality. Yet, this perspective fails to account for accumulating evidence indicating that although many relationships do crumble in the face of hardships, others may emerge from stressful experiences relatively unscathed. Negative life events, such as cancer (Gritz,
Lisa A. Neff and Elizabeth F. Broady, Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Texas at Austin. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lisa A. Neff, Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Texas at Austin, 1 University Station Box A2700, Austin, TX 78712. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 1
Wellisch, Siau, & Wang, 1990), the death of a child (Lehman, Lang, Wortman,...