Key points

  • Couples must learn to cope with both external stressors (e.g., financial issues) and pre-existing vulnerabilities (e.g., partner impulsiveness).
  • Relationships are self-regulating systems, so healthier relationships allow members of a couple to handle their individual problems better.
  • Being responsive to a partner who is stressed or depressed allows them to focus fully on their issues and thus cope more effectively.

A recent study investigates whether a partner’s behavioral responsiveness in a romantic relationship can reduce the negative effects of personal vulnerability (e.g., symptoms of depression) or external stress (e.g., job loss) on relationship functioning.

Note, behavioral responsiveness refers to abilities or skills like:

  • Demonstrating interest, sensitivity, acceptance, and understanding.
  • Correct recognition and interpretation of a partner’s needs.
  • Willingness and ability to be an effective caregiver.

The research, conducted by Pietromonaco and colleagues, published in the January 2022 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, is summarized below.

But first, how do couples usually deal with stress?

How couples deal with stress

The vulnerability-stress-adaptation model of marriage suggests stressful events (e.g., illness, unemployment, poverty, natural disasters) and pre-existing vulnerabilities (e.g., neuroticism, mental illness, parental divorce) influence adaptive processes in marriage.

Stress and personal vulnerability negatively affect couples in many ways—how they cope, communicate, manage conflict, support each other, etc.—thus hindering successful adaptation to a stressor (e.g., a heart attack).

Poor adaptation might, in turn, have a negative effect on stressful events, making them worse, last longer, or more likely to recur in the future. Furthermore, adaptive processes have a reciprocal relationship with marital quality judgments, with the latter also affecting marital stability.

As previous research on factors that influence the stress response has shown, a number of dyadic factors (i.e., those characteristic of the couple) can worsen stress. Some examples are hostility and negativity. Other dyadic factors, like support and emotional validation, reduce stress.

One dyadic factor that may reduce stress is romantic partner responsiveness. The research by Pietromonaco et al. examined whether romantic partner responsiveness lessens the negative effects of depression and external sources of stress on relationship functioning.

Investigating romantic relationships and responsiveness

The data came from a longitudinal study involving three time points (T1, T2, and T3), with a year and a half separating each subsequent pair. Participants were 195 couples with data from T1 to T2, and 158 couples with data from T2 to T3.

Characteristics of husbands: 29 years average age at T1; 94% Caucasian.

Characteristics of wives: 28 years average age at T1; 92% Caucasian.

Average relationship length was 60 months (standard deviation of 35).

For the study, both spouses were asked to choose three areas of disagreement and discuss the most intense of these topics during a 15-minute interaction. This was video recorded.

Symptoms of depression were measured using the Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology-Self-Report, which assesses sleep, anxiety, sadness, optimism, irritability, restlessness, energy level, interest in sex, appetite, weight, and thoughts of suicide and death.

Psychiatric Epidemiology Research Interview (PERI) was used to assess external stress—i.e. whether certain potentially stressful life events (e.g., physical illness, getting fired, the birth of a child) had taken place and what their impacts were (i.e. positive, neutral, negative).

Romantic partner responsiveness was coded using the five secure base support subscales of the Secure Base Scoring System, as described below.

  • Interest in the romantic partner: Listening and encouraging the expression of feelings.
  • Ability to recognize distress: Recognizing needs, concerns, and distress.
  • Interpretation of distress: Correctly interpreting the partner’s concerns.
  • Responsiveness: The desire to help (and its effectiveness).
  • Secure base support quality: A summary of the overall quality of support.

Marital adjustment was evaluated using the 32-item Dyadic Adjustment Scale that measured various aspects of adjustment to marriage: family finances, friends, doing things together (e.g., working on projects), love, sex, dealing with in-laws, household tasks, career-related decisions, fights, discussions regarding separation and divorce, beliefs about the future of the relationship, etc.

The link between romantic relationships and responsiveness

Let us review the findings.

Depressive symptoms

The findings indicated partner responsiveness reduces the occurrence or worsening of maladaptive relationship processes: When the romantic partners of those with more depressive symptoms (compared to less) were not responsive, depressed individuals had a lower marital adjustment. When partners were highly responsive, however, relationship adjustment was not affected by depressive symptoms.

External stress

Romantic partner responsiveness similarly buffered external stress: Individuals experiencing more stress (compared to less) showed a drop in marital adjustment when their partners were less responsive. When partners were very responsive, however, the level of stress no longer affected relationship adjustment over time.

Why romantic partner responsiveness matters

People with depression often expect to be rejected by their intimate partners; they may see their romantic partners as not sufficiently understanding, committed, sympathetic, or responsive. Furthermore, depressed individuals are often ineffective and hostile not only during conflicts but also when seeking support and providing support.

Not surprisingly, spouses of people with depression may respond to these behaviors in a negative way and by engaging in less adaptive behaviors (e.g., less friendly communication).

Similar patterns are observed in the way external sources of stress affect romantic relationships. Those facing external sources of stress are more likely to show hostility, blame and criticize their romantic partner, and experience less relationship satisfaction. This creates a vicious cycle.

However, behavioral responsiveness—i.e. being understanding, sensitive to a spouse’s needs, and willing to provide effective support—can create a critical buffer: Responsiveness promotes healthy relationship functioning and adjustment even in the presence of external stressors or pre-existing vulnerabilities like depression.

What may help individuals in a relationship be more responsive to each other is to remember the following: An intimate, romantic relationship is, in a way, a single self-regulating system.

And a person can, even when his or her significant other is feeling overwhelmed, help regulate the system—maintain a safe, stable, and nurturing relationship—by being responsive. This makes the stressed partner feel supported enough to devote all personal resources to the source of external stress (e.g., work problem) or personal vulnerability (e.g., anxiety or depression); and, as a result, cope more effectively.

Indeed, such cooperation may be why those in supportive relationships and stable marriages are more likely to cope and adapt successfully, both individually and as a dyad.

Facebook image: Drazen Zigic/Shutterstock


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