To say the past year has been stressful would be an understatement. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of us faced a slew of new stressors, such as working remotely, helping kids do their schooling from home, protecting the health and well-being of loved ones, and managing unexpected financial problems. Both scientific evidence and conventional wisdom tells us that for couples’ relationships to thrive during difficult times like these, partners need to support each other. When partners effectively support one another, they not only feel less stressed, but also feel a greater sense of closeness within the relationship.

Unfortunately, being a good support provider is not always easy. In an ideal world, partners would take turns feeling stressed—that way, the non-stressed partner can readily give their time and energy to supporting the stressed partner. In fact, we know of many couples who have jokingly agreed that only one person in the relationship is allowed to freak out at any given time!

Sadly, life doesn’t always work that way. All too often, we are expected to provide support to our partner at times when we are struggling with our own problems. Given that managing stress can drain a person’s energy and resources, we wondered whether individuals who are experiencing their own stress may have difficulty providing support to their partner.

Using data collected from different-sex married couples prior to the pandemic, we first looked at whether stressed individuals are even able to notice their partner’s support needs. After all, the first step to being a good support provider is recognizing that your partner wants or needs support. Though this sounds simple enough, determining whether your partner wants support can be surprisingly difficult. People often express their desire for support using indirect or ambiguous tactics, like sighing or hinting. Thus, good support providers must be on the lookout for those subtle cues of support seeking. However, because stress can diminish our ability to take the perspective of others, we expected it may interfere with picking up on these cues.

To test this idea, each member of the couple reported how much stress they were experiencing in a variety of life domains (such as work, relationships with extended family members, or finances) before completing a questionnaire every night for two weeks describing the day they just had. They reported how much they wanted support from their partner that day and how much they believed their partner wanted support from them that day. In this way, we were able to compare an individual’s perceptions of their partner’s support needs to their partner’s actual support needs.

We found that husbands who were more stressed were less accurate in perceiving their wives’ support needs over the two-week period compared to husbands who were less stressed. Interestingly, wives’ stress levels were not associated with their tendency to notice their husband’s support needs.

But what happens if stressed individuals are able to notice that their partner desires support? Will they be able to act on that knowledge and provide the support that they know their partner needs? We expected that stress may interfere with this part of the support process as well.

For example, imagine you are having an incredibly stressful time at work, with a huge deadline coming up and barely enough time to meet it. One evening, you notice that your partner seems down and you know you should probably talk to them. However, you are feeling drained and exhausted and all you want to do is relax for an hour before going to bed. Can you muster the energy to be a good and attentive listener for your partner instead?

To test this question, we also asked participants to indicate how much support they provided to their partner on each day of the daily questionnaire. We found that when husbands were stressed, they provided less support to their wives, even when they noticed that their partner needed support. Again, wives’ stress was not linked to their support provision.

These results highlight how difficult it can be for partners to support each other during stressful times, especially for men. The fact that women’s stress did not seem to interfere with their support provision was not entirely unexpected, as some other studies have suggested that although unstressed men and women are equally skilled at supporting their partner, women may find it easier to comfort others while also managing their own stress.

So, what should couples do? Although we don’t have an easy answer to this question, one piece of advice is to try and be more direct about your support needs so that your partner is less likely to miss them. And during times when you both are feeling stressed in the relationship, perhaps cut each other some slack and recognize that neither of you may be the best support provider at the moment. Hopefully, you can go back to taking turns being stressed soon.

For Further Reading

Neff, L. A., Nguyen, T. T. T., & Williamson, H. C. (2020). Too stressed to help? The effects of stress on noticing partner needs and enacting support. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/0146167220974490

Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2017). Acknowledging the elephant in the room: How stressful environmental contexts shape relationship dynamics. Current Opinions in Psychology, 13, 107-110. DOI: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.05.013

Bodenmann, G., Meuwly, N., Germann, J., Nussbeck, F. W., Heinrichs, M., & Bradbury, T. N. (2015). Effects of stress on the social support provided by men and women in intimate relationships. Psychological Science26(10), 1584-1594.

Lisa A. Neff is an Associate Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies the factors that can hinder healthy relationship development, including stress.

Hannah C. Williamson is an Assistant Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on strengthening families, particularly among under-served groups, including low-income and ethnic minority couples.