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Working With Your Partner to Confront and Control Stress

Nov. 3, 2022 Psychology Today

At some point in our lives, we will be confronted by difficulties and stressors that not only will impact us as individuals but also have the potential to affect our relationships. Understanding how to come together as a team when these situations are encountered can lead to greater relationship satisfaction.

The Research

Dyadic coping involves the signals sent by one partner indicating stress, the response of their partner, and their joint coping efforts (Bodenmann, 2005; Bodenmann & Cina, 2005, as cited in Papp & Witt, 2010). When stress signals are sent by one individual, the partner has the option to do nothing, respond negatively and potentially escalate the level of stress, or engage in dyadic coping. Dyadic coping strategies may involve joint problem-solving, sharing feelings of commitment, and supporting one another, all with the goal of reducing stress. Papp and Witt (2010) conducted a study with 100 heterosexual couples to determine how individual coping affects dyadic coping, as well as how individual and dyadic coping strategies predict both partner well-being and relationship functioning.

To examine coping strategies in this study, the researchers looked at peoples’ negative mood regulation, which involves their expectations and beliefs as to how their behaviors will reduce negative mood and/or increase positive mood (Catanzaro & Mearns, 1990, as cited in Papp & Witt, 2010). Previous research has shown that negative mood regulation expectations “…are linked with indicators of relationship functioning, including attachment styles and conflict strategies (Creasey, Kershaw, & Boston, 1999, as cited in Papp & Whitt, p. 552).

The researchers found that there was a relationship between individual coping and dyadic coping, and that positive dyadic coping was positively associated with respondents’ own relationship satisfaction. Furthermore, female partners’ positive dyadic coping was positively linked with their male partners’ relationship satisfaction, and both males’ and females’ negative mood regulation scores were positively linked to relationship satisfaction.

Overall, the researchers found that dyadic coping was a stronger predictor than individual coping when it came to relationship functioning. Gender differences emerged in that dyadic coping appeared to be more important to relationship satisfaction for women and that “…women’s dyadic coping as compared to men may help to enrich broader relationship functioning for both partners” (Papp & Witt, 2010, p. 557). Taken together, one thing is clear: Working with your partner can affect the satisfaction derived from the relationship.

The Application

So now that we know that dyadic coping can enhance relationship satisfaction, how might we be able to initiate it? Below are a couple of suggestions:

  • Turn to your partner and explain the situation fully, using clear language and “I statements.” By focusing on what the situation is, how you’re being affected, and why it’s upsetting you, you are able to signal to your partner how you are feeling and what you need. Additionally, you are indicating that there is a problem without blaming your partner (should the stress be interpersonal in nature).
  • Indicate what you need and/or what you don’t need in that moment. Sometimes it’s easy to indicate the type of support we need, such as a person to lend an ear, someone to brainstorm potential solutions with, etc. In other situations, however, we may not know how to reduce the stress or handle a problem. If the latter is the case, that is OK, but share that with your partner. Even more helpful would be indicating what you don’t need to avoid situations in which your partner unintentionally escalates the level of stress experienced (for example, by constantly reassuring you that things will be OK, when you may not know if that is the case). The more information you can offer your partner as to what you need and don’t need, the more likely it is that you will be operating as a team.

The above points are just suggestions for opening up a conversation with your partner about how you would like to handle stress as a team. It is important to have this discussion proactively so that when difficulties arise, you will be prepared to handle them together.

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