1. Basic research - Family Environments and Health
It is well known that chronic everyday stress is negatively related to couples’ and families’ wellbeing and health. However, many open questions remain regarding
- the mechanisms by which everyday stress affects the family system,
- whether the mechanisms are similar in all couple relationships (e.g. also in adolescent couples) or change during certain life stages (e.g. transition to parenthood, retirement), and
- what couples can do to successfully cope with everyday stress.
How does everyday stress affect the family system?
Chronic everyday stress occurs outside the family or couple system (external stress) but spills over into the relationship and quickly leads to disagreements and conflict (internal stress). We have investigated an important mechanism that has received little attention in stress research so far, namely how stress contaminates the shared couple time. Among other things, we were able to show that external stressors contaminate the couple relationship by affecting both the quality and quantity of shared couple time.
Are the mechanisms similar in all stages of life?
Research from our team suggests that stress spill-over processes work differently in late adolescence compared to adulthood. Contrary to findings from the adult literature, external stress is not related to internal stress. In addition, the way adolescents jointly cope with stress together neither predicts relationship satisfaction nor the stability of the relationship after one year. In adult couples, however, one can predict with 80% accuracy whether they will separate or not on the basis of their dyadic coping skills.
What can couples do to cope successfully with external stress?
Successful communal stress management - or "dyadic coping", as it is called in technical terms - is an important indicator of a stable well-functioning relationship. Dyadic coping describes how couples support each other in stressful times: whether they analyse a problem together, help each other to relax or encourage one another to see the situation in a different light. Studies have shown that couples who do so successfully are more satisfied with their relationship, feel less stress and report better psychological and physical well-being. Examples from our own research have highlighted the benefits of dyadic coping for couples who were transitioning into parenthood or seeking support in raising children.
Dyadic Coping is a competence that can be trained; both the "stressed partner" and the "listener" can contribute. In a conversation following experimentally induced stress, for example, we were able to show that partners adapt the type of support they offer to their partner's stress signals (i.e. it was best to voice stress explicitly) and that listening plays a central role in the coping process.
2. Research methods
Understanding family processes is a complex endeavor. It is therefore not surprising that this complexity is also reflected in the data. For example, we have shown in various studies that a dyadic representation as well as a conceptual and statistical differentiation between levels of analysis (within-person versus between-person level) is central in order to avoid erroneous conclusions.
Our research therefore uses a variety of quantitative and qualitative research methods to adequately model the complex, dynamic and often dependent structure of systemic data. A diversity of data sources (physiological measures, questionnaire data from the perspective of different family members, experiments, laboratory and intensive longitudinal real-life observational data, performance measures e.g. by means of test procedures) and study designs (diary studies, longitudinal studies, intervention studies) of our work unit allows us to develop innovative research questions and to operationalize them with creative approaches. For example, thanks to the "EAR", the electronically activated audio recorder that intermittently records snippets of environmental sounds from study participants, we were able to refute the prejudice that mindful people act more morally.
3. Prevention and Intervention
Studies impressively demonstrate that the influence of social relationships on health (e.g. mortality) is similar to that of other established risk factors (e.g. smoking). There is growing evidence that intimate partners and family members play an important role in the development and maintenance of mental disorders in childhood as well as in adulthood, but also can be a promising, positive resource. However, only a few interventions explicitly involve the partner. This makes it all the more important to design interventions and test their effectiveness that focus on the couple or family system instead of exclusively addressing the health of the index person. In order to provide targeted support for chronically stressed couples and families, we need more detailed knowledge about the mediating mechanisms of intervention and prevention programs.
In an RCT intervention study with 150 couples, for example, we used path analyses to show that in mothers' perceptions, participation in a couple-focused stress prevention program reduced children's behavioural problems by improving relationship quality, while in fathers' perceptions, the programme improved dysfunctional parenting practices and thus had a positive effect on their children.