Newlywed couples tended to have increased relationship satisfaction after experiencing a natural disaster together, according to new longitudinal research that examined the impact of Hurricane Harvey. The findings, which appear in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that large stressors tend to provoke positive rather than negative responses from romantic couples.
The authors of the new study had set out to conduct longitudinal research on the impact of everyday stressors on recently married couples, but the hurricane hit in the middle of their study.
“In some ways I didn’t really have a choice about whether to be interested in the effects of the hurricane because it happened in the middle of our longitudinal study, so there was no ignoring it,” said study author Hannah Williamson, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “But I was interested in this specific question about how a natural disaster would impact trajectories of relationship satisfaction because this has been an unresolved question in the relationship science literature for a long time.”
“There are multiple papers that have looked at how natural disasters and other events (like 9/11) impact relationships, but they have always used aggregated data (for example, at the county level) because pre and post data was never available at the individual level. Given that we were the first to ever have this data, I knew I had to examine this question.”
Williamson and her colleagues recruited 231 newlywed couples from socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in Harris County, Texas, and had them complete six assessments of relationship satisfaction between February 2015 and March 2019. Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast in August 2017, devastating much of the region.
The newlywed couples were highly satisfied with their relationships at the start of the study. But the researchers observed a decline in relationship satisfaction over the first 2.5 years of marriage.
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, however, the couples experienced a temporary boost in relationship satisfaction. This boost was highest among couples who had lower levels of relationship satisfaction before the hurricane.
“An important takeaway is that our life partners are incredibly important, but it’s easy to get bogged down in little annoyances while we are going through the everyday grind of life. In this study we saw that a major disruptive and traumatic event can help bring attention back to our partners and their importance to us,” Williamson told PsyPost. “I think it would be beneficial for relationships if we can figure out a way to gain that change in perspective, and remind ourselves how important our partners are, without having to go through a traumatic event to do so.”
But the boost in satisfaction faded over time. The researchers found that the couples’ relationship satisfaction returned to pre-hurricane levels within a year.
“The posthurricane decline is consistent with a temporary boost in satisfaction, followed by hedonic adaptation, whereby couples return to their predisaster level of relationship functioning,” the researchers explained in their study. “Thus, as life gradually returns to normal, couples may find that old problems and concerns resurface, and their brief ability to overlook them has diminished.”
Surprisingly, the researchers found no evidence that the level of hurricane exposure, chronic stress, or social support predicted the boost in relationship satisfaction after the hurricane.
“We weren’t able to examine the specific reason for the increase, and subsequent decline, in relationship satisfaction. Future research is needed to address this question by examining potential mediators,” Williamson said.
The study, “Experiencing a Natural Disaster Temporarily Boosts Relationship Satisfaction in Newlywed Couples“, was authored by Hannah C. Williamson, Thomas N. Bradbury, and Benjamin R. Karney.