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Stress fractures

Scholars look at marriages under pressure

photo of a married couplePsychology 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-playing—each taking turns as the spouse under stress and as the supportive partner—to 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 manage—even 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 said—the 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 stress—in areas such as work, school, finances, or health—were 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 book.

Carol Gerwin

Carol Gerwin is a freelance writer based in Boston.

Photo: Lambert / Archive photos

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