Volume 18, Issue 5 e12954
EMPIRICAL ARTICLE

Examining the trajectory of relational conflict leading up to and after an anticipated stressor

Ana M. DiGiovanni

Corresponding Author

Ana M. DiGiovanni

Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA

Correspondence

Ana M. DiGiovanni.

Email: [email protected]

Search for more papers by this author
Abriana M. Gresham

Abriana M. Gresham

Department of Psychology, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA

Search for more papers by this author
Marika Yip-Bannicq

Marika Yip-Bannicq

The Family Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Search for more papers by this author
Niall Bolger

Niall Bolger

Department of Psychology, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA

Search for more papers by this author
First published: 30 April 2024

Abstract

A wealth of research suggests that as stress increases, so does conflict in close relationships. But is this always the case? Specifically, how does the trajectory of conflict unfold in the period before and after an acute and anticipated major life stressor? We capitalize on a 44-day dyadic diary where one partner was preparing for the New York State Bar Exam (N = 312 couples) to explore the trajectory of conflict leading up to the exam, as well as how these patterns differed once exams finished. Results revealed that examinees and partners reported statistically meaningful decreases in conflict as exams approached, which contrasts prior research. This was followed by a spike in the likelihood of conflict immediately after exams were finished, and a quick return to low likelihoods of conflict one week after exams. This work highlights how couples, even in the face of stress, regulate their emotions and engage in relationship maintenance processes. However, relationship frustrations tend to be expressed—resulting in conflict—once the stressor is over. Not only does this work inform theories about relational conflict during times of stress, but it also highlights the need to study the dynamics of stress before, during, and after meaningful life events.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST STATEMENT

The authors have no conflicts of interest to report.

DATA AVAILABILITY STATEMENT

All data files, R scripts, and model output (as well as Supplementary Material) can be found on OSF (https://osf.io/ufe9z/).