We all know graduate school can be stressful—the time demands, the workload, and the pressure to publish can get to all students at times. Unfortunately for our loved ones, stressful experiences outside of relationships are often associated with poor relationship functioning and decreased relationship satisfaction, a phenomenon called stress spillover. Specifically, stress has been linked to increases in argumentative behaviors in the home (Buck & Neff, 2012), less accepting views of family members (Crouter et al., 2001), and overall declines in relationship satisfaction (Randall & Bodenmann, 2009). In other words, growing research indicates that individuals may push their loved ones away at precisely the times when they likely need support the most. To explain this phenomenon, it has been suggested that coping with stressors drains individuals of their self-regulatory resources (i.e. their abilities to exert self-control), leaving them with fewer resources for engaging in effortful, pro-relationship behaviors.
But don’t worry—that means there’s good news! If stress spillover stems from the depletion of self-regulatory resources, there are several ways to build your resilience and facilitate your recovery from the stress of graduate school in order to protect the relationships you value most. One study examining partners’ behaviors at home after a stressful workday (cough… like when you get home from a study gone wrong… cough) suggests that partners may attempt to recover depleted resources by engaging in alone time and withdrawing from relationship interactions (Repetti, 1989). This study demonstrated that if wives supported their husbands’ social withdrawal at the end of a stressful workday, husbands were less likely to exhibit angry behaviors in the home. These results are consistent with the notion that coping strategies that facilitate recovery after stressful experiences may allow partners/roommates to return to the relationship refreshed and rejuvenated, which should reduce stress spillover. Further, simply experiencing coping with manageable stressors allows couples to better handle stress later on (Neff & Broady, 2011), and gaining practice with depleting tasks facilitates better resilience to subsequent depleting tasks (Finkel et al., 2009).
Restful and positive mood-inducing experiences can help as well (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996; Tice, Baumeister, Shmueli, & Muraven, 2007). Taking a breather or watching a funny movie may help you reduce feelings of depletion. Also keep in mind that leisure activities typically provide opportunities for rest and improving mood (Davidson et al., 2006) and are suggested to be helpful in reducing feelings of burnout (Korpela & Kinnunen, 2011), so it is possible that by saving time for fun and relaxation you could be protecting your relationships as well. Although this has not yet been directly tested, the second author is doing so now in her dissertation! She is also testing whether you should engage in these activities with or without your partner (or both) in order to effectively recover from stress and replenish your self-regulatory resources. Stay tuned!
In sum, taking a break, achieving triumphs in dealing with graduate school stress, and making sure to insert some fun, humor, and other positive mood-inducing experiences into your life should not only contribute to your work-life balance and personal mental health, but also protect your valued relationships from the detriments of stress spillover.