Stress and Intimacy: Perception Colors Behaviors


• Stress appraisal influences relationship dynamics, shaping behaviors and feelings in romantic couples.
Perceptions of stress impact conflict resolution, satisfaction, and coping strategies in relationships.
• Viewing stress as a challenge rather than a threat can foster intimacy and relationship satisfaction.


The way our romantic partners perceive stress impacts our own behaviors and feelings in ways we may not even realize. A recent study conducted at the University of Ohio and published in Affective Science looks at the ways the anticipation of a stressful conversation in a romantic couple can affect the couples’ behavior and feelings toward each other, even when their perceptions of the stressful conversation are not the same. The findings reveal the hidden impact of stress appraisals on relationship dynamics.

Stress Appraisals and Relationship Behavior

Stress appraisal refers to the way you evaluate and respond to a stressful event. First, you evaluate the significance and potential impact of the stressful event. You can perceive the event as either positive and challenging, meaning the event presents an opportunity for growth, or you can perceive it as negative and threatening, meaning the event poses a potential harm or loss.

After evaluating the potential impact of the event, you decide whether you have the resources and ability to cope with it. The way you perceive the event determines your overall stress response. If you have a threat appraisal where you doubt your ability to cope, you will have a heightened stress response. If you believe you have the ability to manage the stressful event, you will have a more positive stress response. Everyone appraises stress events differently, with factors like personality, past experiences, and beliefs about stress influencing your perception of an event.

The way individuals appraise stress plays a significant role in intimate relationships and influences things like conflict resolution, relationship satisfaction, and coping strategies. For example, those who view conflict as a threat tend to use more avoidant or aggressive coping strategies which can escalate tensions. Those behaviors include trying not to hurt a partner’s feelings, avoiding disagreement, and hiding negative thoughts.

Those who view stressors as a challenge and growth opportunity are more likely to use problem-focused coping that addresses the source of the stress. They are more likely to reassure partners, convey commitment and trust, engage partners in cooperative conflict resolution, and ensure smooth communication.

Studying Stress and Relationships

The research team led by Brett Peters at Ohio University observed the individual variability surrounding stress appraisals and examined how those appraisals are associated with both individuals’ and their partners’ behavior and feelings towards each other. The way each person in a relationship appraises stress shapes how they behave towards each other and impacts feelings of relationship security and well-being.

In the first part of the study, couples discuss their most significant, ongoing problem that does not explicitly involve their significant other, since stress external to a relationship can cause internal problems and influence relationship behavior. Each member of the couple writes down their biggest external stress and then one member of the couple was randomly chosen to be the actor and discuss the stressor with their partner. They completed questionnaires regarding stress appraisals, feelings of relationship security and well-being, and relationship satisfaction before and after the eight-minute discussion. Their behaviors were assessed and coded by independent coders blind to condition assignment and hypotheses. When actors anticipated the conversation as more of a challenge and less of a threat, they engaged in more positive-indirect behaviors, perceived their partner as more responsive, and felt closer and more intimate with their partner after the conversation.

The second part of the study is similar, looking specifically at approach and avoidance behaviors between couples during stressful conversations. When both actors and partners anticipate the upcoming conversation as more challenging and less threatening, the actors engage in more approach and less avoidance behaviors. They also perceive their partner as more responsive and feel more intimate and closer after the conversation. Actors who engage in more avoidance behaviors perceive their partner less positively and feel less close to their partner following the conversation.

In the third part of the study, couples discuss their most significant, ongoing relationship issue. Each person ranks in order of significance three serious relationship issues that cause conflict within their relationship. One of the couple members is randomly chosen to discuss their most serious issue with their partner. When partners anticipate the conversation as more challenging and less threatening, actors engage in more approach-oriented behaviors. Actors who appraise the conversation as more challenging and less threatening perceive their partners as more responsive and feel more intimate and closer after the discussion. Actors and partners who engage in more approach and less avoidance behaviors during the conversation perceive their partners as more responsive and feel more intimate and closer with their partners.

Implications for Relationship Dynamics

Perceptions of stress and behaviors vary for each of the individuals involved and influence behavior in unanticipated ways. If your partner perceives a conversation as less of a threat, then your behavior will reflect that, even if you do not have the same stress perception. The results suggest that stress appraisals are uniquely associated with interpersonal behavior within interactions, over and above relationship satisfaction.

This study provides an interesting perspective on the way stress is appraised in relationships and the way it influences behavior. There is a conception that stress is inherently negative and should be avoided. This study shows that stress is not a bad thing but can rather provide an opportunity to grow and learn, depending on how we choose to appraise the stressful event. If even just one person in a couple shifts their attitude to one of challenge and approach, instead of threat and avoid, the dynamics of the relationship can change, creating more opportunity for intimacy and relationship satisfaction.

Ultimately, this research emphasizes the significance of individual stress appraisals in shaping the quality of romantic relationships and finding potential avenues for intervention to promote healthier relationship dynamics. By highlighting the significance of understanding stress dynamics in fostering healthy and thriving relationships, this study encourages further exploration into how couples can effectively navigate stress together, ultimately strengthening their bonds and enhancing their overall well-being.

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.