look at marriages under pressure
professor Benjamin Karney of the University of Florida stood before
an international gathering of social scientists in BC's Fulton Hall
and summed up 60 years of studies on stress in families in six words:
"Stress is bad. Coping is good."
It was a light moment on a heavy topic for the psychology researchers
who convened at Boston College on October 12 and 13. But it was
an important reminder amid all the complex theory and statistical
jargon that they were trying to answer a basic and crucial question
facing millions of couples: how to do better at coping with stress.
Most people underestimate how stress can erode close relationships,
said Guy Bodenmann, the Swiss psychologist from the University of
Fribourg whose talk on "Couples with Different Stress Profiles"
kicked off the conference. Often, Bodenmann said, couples who seem
to be a good match will divorce because they do a poor job of dealing
with "spillover" stress from outside their marriage, such
as one partner's problems at work. "It is very hard to reduce
stress. It's better to enhance coping skills," said Bodenmann,
who was a bit fried himself, what with the flight from Switzerland,
his kids waking up at 2:00 a.m., and a bad cold. Bodenmann proposed
that couples be taught a repertoire of coping strategies for stressful
situations, and he outlined his own three-step program, in which
husbands and wives use role-playingeach taking turns as the
spouse under stress and as the supportive partnerto learn
to communicate their stress more effectively, figure out its root
causes, and give each other better support.
Many couples, Bodenmann said, need to learn the most basic approaches
to supporting stressed-out spouses, such as showing interest in
their daily experiences, showing confidence in their ability to
manageeven hugging them. His studies in Switzerland show that
training works, he said.
No sooner had Bodenmann taken his seat than Ben Karney of the University
of Florida took the conference into a 180-degree turn.
Karney, a social psychologist, said that training couples to cope
won't solve their problems if they face serious chronic stress,
such as poverty or illness, which he called a "constant drain
on the resources of a relationship." A better way to intervene
for these families would be to improve their quality of life, Karney
said. Then "they may be able to generate their own coping."
The idea is one that Karney said policymakers too often neglect.
As an example, he recounted how news reports a few years ago revealed
that the divorce rates in several Bible Belt states were among the
highest in the country, and the embarrassed governors of Arkansas
and Oklahoma declared "marital emergencies." Their solution?
They took welfare money and gave it to "marriage educators"
to help promote stable relationships.
What they failed to consider were the difficult socioeconomic conditions
in their states, Karney saidthe high poverty, infant mortality,
and murder rates and the fact that many families lack health insurance.
Karney presented a four-year study of newlyweds in the Los Angeles
area that indicated that couples facing a lot of chronic stressin
areas such as work, school, finances, or healthwere much less
happy in their marriages than those facing little. And their relationships
were less resilient. Encountering a single negative event, such
as a car accident ("acute stress," in psychological lingo),
the chronically stressed couples saw their marital satisfaction
plummet, especially the wives'. "If people are in a really
bad situation, sitting them down [in couples therapy] and saying
'try using I feel statements' is not the answer,"
Karney said. "Give them food. Give them health care."
BC social work professor Karen Kayser organized the conference,
which was cosponsored by the Science Directorate of the American
Psychological Association and Boston College. Papers by Bodenmann,
Karney, and other presenters will be published by the APA in a forthcoming
Carol Gerwin is a freelance writer based in Boston.
Photo: Lambert / Archive photos