from Emma Young
If you have a partner, how do you think your relationship would play out in the face of a natural disaster? Do you think it would bring you closer – or could the stress make your relationship worse?
Various studies have examined this and their conclusions have been mixed. But practically everyone has been hampered by the lack of key data: actual relationship satisfaction measurements taken before a disaster (instead of being reminded later) to compare with subsequent satisfaction measurements. A new paper in psychology now closes this gap. Hannah Williamson of the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues report a remarkable study of 231 couples living in Harris County, Texas. It used data collected before and after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the region in August 2017.
Years before Harvey struck, the team had enrolled a diverse group of newlyweds for a study of relationship development in their early years. By August 2017, these couples had already completed a couple satisfaction survey three times, each about six months apart. The team realized that this was the perfect starting point for a study of the effects of a natural disaster on couples.
About six, 12, and 18 months after the hurricane hit, participants completed the couples satisfaction survey again. They also reported how badly the hurricane hit them – whether they had to evacuate their home or be rescued, and whether they were physically injured, for example. And they reported chronic stress and social support.
Typically, just married couples’ relationship satisfaction follows this path: they are initially very satisfied, but then both wives and husbands report a gradual and continuous decline over time.
These couples did not experience that.
In the pre-hurricane era, yes, they reported a gradual decline (and this was more pronounced in the wives than the husbands). But immediately after the hurricane, both partners experienced a similar increase in relationship satisfaction. This could have been because of surviving the disaster together with a partner who was also a victim, the researchers suspect. Whatever the reason, this longitudinal study suggests that natural disasters bring couples together rather than drift apart. But that didn’t take long …
“As the initial impact of the hurricane subsided, so too did satisfaction,” the team reports. Participants soon returned to the same rate of gradual decline in satisfaction as they did before the disaster. As life gradually returned to normal, previous relationship problems may reappear or become more difficult to miss.
There were some interesting additional results. The size of the jump in satisfaction was not related to how badly they were personally affected by Hurricane Harvey or how much chronic stress and social support they had. But couples who reported poorer relationships before the hurricane tended to report the largest increases in satisfaction afterwards. However, this could be due to a ceiling effect – the couples who were most satisfied before Harvey didn’t have much room for improvement.
There are some limitations to the work that are worth noting. This study looked at newlyweds; perhaps couples who have been together for a long time would not have the same experience. Also, of course, the data came from a group of US citizens living in one place. Still, the group matched the racial and ethnic mix of people living in poverty in the area very well, the team notes. And since the more disaster prone regions of the United States are typically home to communities with a similar profile, the researchers argue that, in the United States at least, they represent a sample of people who are more prone to natural disasters.
Natural disasters – whether hurricanes or wildfires or heavy rains and floods – are of course becoming more common and serious around the world. For anyone affected, the relationship with their partner is probably more important than anyone else to deal with. It is therefore becoming increasingly important to understand the impact disaster has on these relationships.
– Experiencing a natural disaster temporarily increases relationship satisfaction in newly married couples
Emma Young (@EmmaELJunge) works at BPS Biomedarticles