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Department of Psychology Clinical Psychology for Children/Adolescents and Couples/Families

The impact of external stress on couples' communication


Drawing upon recent theoretical frameworks that outline mechanisms by which stress can increase relationship distress, an experimental study is proposed to evaluate the role of external stress (stress experienced outside of marriage) as a risk factor for negative dyadic communication. To examine the effects of external stress on couple’s communication, couples participate in a laboratory experiment where acute stress will be induced by exposing one or both partners to a standardized laboratory stressor (Trier Social Stress Test; TSST¸ Kirschbaum, Pirke & Hellhammer, 1993). Use of this well-established standardized stressor task overcomes a key limitation of prior correlational studies, whereby individual and couple characteristics are confounded with stress exposure. In total, three groups (N = 198 couples) will be examined: couples in which (a) only the woman will be stressed; (b) only the man will be stressed; and (c) both partners will be stressed. Before and after the stress exposure of one or both partners, couples are videotaped during a natural and unstructured discussion. Self-report data (set of questionnaires; emotional and cognitive reactions during the experiment) and observational data (interaction behaviour and dyadic coping behavior) are collected several times during the experiment, allowing us to examine the effects of acute external stress on both partners’ psychological stress experience and the quality of dyadic interaction. These effects are assumed to be moderated by personality factors (i.e., neuroticism) and individual coping. The primary aims of this study are to achieve greater insight into the effects of external stress on close relationships and to understand the mechanisms that strengthen and weaken these effects. The strengths of this study include strong reliance on emerging theoretical perspectives relating stress and couple’s functioning, a research design that maximizes internal validity, and measurement procedures that yield information about observed couple interaction and self-reports of stress and self-perceived behavior.

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