“We originally set out to study the effects of everyday stressors, such as financial problems and the transition to parenthood, on couples in the early years of their marriage,” said Hannah Williamson, assistant professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin and lead author of the study.
“When the hurricane hit in the middle of the study, it allowed us to look at the effects of a major acute stressor. Unfortunately, more and more people are going through disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires,” she added.
The study found that in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, couples experienced a significant boost in relationship satisfaction. This surprised researchers because, in previous studies looking at everyday stressors, couples typically experienced “stress spillover” in their relationships, which decreased their satisfaction with their relationships.
We actually saw the biggest jumps in relationship satisfaction among the couples who were the most unhappy before the hurricane
“Based on previous studies, we expected to see people who were happy with their relationships before the hurricane would be even happier afterwards, and people who were unhappy would be more unhappy,” said Williamson.
“We actually saw the biggest jumps in relationship satisfaction among the couples who were the most unhappy before the hurricane,” she added.
The researchers also examined how bad the hurricane experience was for couples, asking them about damage to their homes, financial losses and more. It turned out these differences in experiences did not factor into the results in relationship satisfaction.
None of this means that couples experiencing relationship problems should start planning to spend hurricane season in Florida now. Researchers noted that the boost in relationship satisfaction was not permanent, and couples returned to pre-hurricane levels of satisfaction within a year.
“A natural disaster can really put things in perspective. People realise how important their partner is to them when they are jolted out of the day-to-day stress of life,” Williamson said.
“There may be therapeutic applications to this if couples can shift their perspective in a similar way without having to go through a natural disaster,” she concluded.
Thomas N. Bradbury and Benjamin R. Karney of the University of California, Los Angeles also contributed to the research, which was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.