A Sudden Experiment for Millions of Americans

family-stress spillover-effectMany of us are hunkering down, and now suddenly working from home. Managing the Spillover Effect and family stress will be an incredible challenge.

Millions of us, right now, are collapsing our workspace into our family space. This will be yet another lifestyle change bestowed on us by Covid-19.

Not all of us, obviously, even have this option.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, less than a third of Americans have the option of working from home.

Unfortunately, most service workers can’t, but about half of all technology workers can. Many knowledge workers have already fled office buildings and now must carve out a new workspace at home. Service workers will be particularly hard hit economically by Covid-19.

Major tech firms such as Google, Apple, Twitter, Amazon, and Airbnb have all begun to shift many workers to newly-created home offices. Social distancing is the way we will have to roll for now.

Career and Kids… Under One Roof as Family Stress Multiplies into the Spillover Effect

family-stress spillover-effectAs Netemeyer et al. (1996) acknowledged, the two most significant focal points of adult life are career and family.

With a rapid increase in dual-career marriages, how will spouses balance their work and family life roles, especially if they have children and are dealing with coronavirus?

How can dual-career marriage, where partners are also parents, manage family stress while navigating the mandate to suddenly now work from home?

The interplay between career and family demands is particularly challenging for dual-career families.

Both spouses may feel overwhelmed with these two now conflicting home-based spheres of life …career and family (Lewis & Cooper, 1987).

Managing the family stress of suddenly balancing career and kids at home was not top-of-mind when these decisions were made…but with more and more school closings…it will be soon enough.

Avoiding the “Spillover Effect,” Family Stress, and the Wrong Sort of Social Distancing

Here’s the problem with family stress when it comes to intimate relationships.

We were already poorly managing workplace and family stress…and that was in the good old days …when we had an office to go to, and there was no coronavirus or social distancing.

A study back in 2013 by the APA discovered that 33% of us experienced chronic work-related stress. Contrary to popular belief, women reported even higher levels of work stress than men, as well as a felt sense of being underpaid and undervalued.

What did we do with all these workplace stressors? More often than not, we tended to take it out on our partners.

Intense work stress is correlated with increases in angry and withdrawn marital behavior. Researchers named it the Spillover Effect (Sears, M. S., Repetti, R. L., Robles, T. F., & Reynolds, B. M., 2016).

Battered Nervous Systems and Family Stress

An overloaded nervous system acts out with 3 toxic marital behaviors. Here’s what they learned about how work stress overloads the nervous system and negatively impacts a marriage:

  • Overt anger toward a partner.
  • Abruptly disregarding or dismissing your partner’s expressed needs (what Gottman calls turning against”),
  • Reducing affection “bids” and self-disclosure (Gottman calls this “turning away”).

Research tells us that there are 2 ways that work stress “spills over” into marital stress:

  • Negative mood
  • Desire to avoid social interaction.

The Problem of Family Stress and the Spillover Effect… Before the Coronavirus

family-stress spill-over-effectSome stressed spouses may not have a negative mood, but may still tend to withdraw emotionally.

Research tells us that the more stressed-out, angry, dismissive, and distancing behavior shows up daily, the more marital dissatisfaction and family stress will increasingly become the norm.

It’s important to note that research by Sears, Repetti, Robles, and Reynolds (2016) examined stress that was brought home from the office.

This was a problem even though the stressed-out partner obviously had a period of time driving home in which to perhaps calm down.

Now workplace stress will be up close and personal…right in the kitchen and the living room.

With our sudden experiment of home office work and the other myriad coronavirus stressors, this “Spillover Effect” may exacerbate family stress as never before.

We have no choice…we must rise to face this pandemic with our best selves.

A Few Best Practices for Managing the “Spillover Effect” of Family Stress from our Upcoming Love in the Time of Coronavirus Mini-Course

  • There is a Personal Downside to a Passionate Commitment to Your Career. This goes against our cultural norms, but the new research tells us that the more keenly focused you are at succeeding at work, the greater you will struggle with the Spillover Effect in your marriage (Houlfort, N., Philippe, F. L., Bourdeau, S., & Leduc, C., 2018).

There is no common sense in couples therapy, and as I’ve discussed many times earlier in this bog, many of the “best practices” for marital longevity contradict cultural values.

The more committed you are to your work, the more you’ll need to establish and adhere to firm boundaries now that you’re working from home. Talk to your partner about your work schedule and stick with it.

When working from home, boundaries matter. So does your commitment to excellence. This blog will continue to explore better, research-driven ways to manage both.

  • Embrace Differentiation. Love in the Time of Coronavirus will underscore a hidden fact of intimacy. Couples are comprised of two separate individuals. Sure, there is a we-ness” that all healthy couples cultivate and share. But there are also fundamental differences between the two of you that will never change. And these differences are a perpetual source of family stress.

  • Behave as If You Both Left For Work. You wouldn’t crash in on your spouse at work with a less than urgent issue. So don’t do it now. Respect each other’s workspace and schedule.
  • Have a Lunch Date. Make it a priority to connect at lunch. This is a great time for a “stress-reducing “conversation. Also, try to include a brisk 10-minute walk together around the neighborhood.
  • Talk About How You Roll at Work. Discuss your idiosyncratic work habits. Do you like to take brief social breaks to chat? Or are you a drill-down and focus for hours type, and prefer to take breaks alone? Have these conversations in advance. It will help foster healthy boundaries that work for both of you.
  • Blame it on Darlene. If kids can have imaginary friends, your shared workspace can have an imaginary insensitive co-worker. The problem with that new hire Darlene Corona is that she doesn’t wash out her coffee cup, take out the trash, clean the bathroom…you get the picture.

That Damn Darlene…

When you’re frustrated with your partner, blame it on the new hire… Darlene Corona. Blame her loudly and have the understanding that you will both chime in…but the complaint will be dealt with.

Imagine something like this:

“Darlene Corona strikes again. She left a mess in the sink.”

“I’ll talk to her about it. She’s new. But I agree with you. What should I tell her?”

“Tell her that at the end of the day, she should clean out the sink.”

I’ll tell her that her carelessness is giving her a bad reputation with her co-workers. But she’s already left for the day. I’ll take care of it honey, but Darlene’s going to have to clean up after herself from now on.”

Believe it or not, your nervous system will really believe that there is a real Darlene Corona. You can have fun with this…as long as you clean up after your own Darlene-like behaviors.

  • Have a Ritual of Connection when you “leave” and “return” from work. A hug and a 6-second kiss will go a long way in keeping you both emotionally connected. And have a firm start-stop time. Good boundaries make fabulous spouses.
  • Be Curious About Your Partner. Many of you will see a side to your spouse that may have been unseen up to this point. Find something about their work persona that you can praise or compliment. This will help them feel your friendship and admiration.
  • Accept Differences in Coping Styles. Recognize and accept that your response to stress may be profoundly different. And both are OK.

Different Responses to Stress

Our response to stress is the result of our family of origin, life experience, attitudes, beliefs, and even genetics. Perhaps you have a fight-or-flight response to family stress.

When stressed, you may withdraw, and pull yourself into a shell to calm yourself and avoid discussing unpleasant feelings.

Your spouse, on the other hand, may have a tend-and-befriend response to stress.

While you’re looking to establish emotional distance, they may be pursuing you to connect emotionally.

Because of how we are socialized, women tend more to show a “tend-and-befriend” response than men. Your focus on emotional distance creates a perfect storm. This is an essential core difference between the two of you that Gottman calls a “perpetual problem.”

Keep in mind that women already feel underpaid and undervalued at work…now they may feel all alone at home as well…

When women pursue an attempt to tend and befriend their withdrawn husbands, the classic pursuer-distancer dynamic takes hold. Understanding these different physiological responses to stress can help couples to reduce family stress and manage the “Spillover Effect” while newly working from home.

We all need to do better at this critical time. Couples Therapy Inc. can help you both with that too.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus Mini-Course

Working from home will elevate family stress. The good news is that you can manage it. But you may need to acquire new skills to hang together as a couple during these unprecedented times.

Dr. K and I are deep in the process of assembling a great mini-course called Love in the Time of Coronavirus.

We will take an in-depth, science-based look at how the coronavirus will increase family stress, and what you can do to build resilience and thrive in these uncertain times.

There are a limited number of webinar seats (300). Please reach out to us to reserve your slot, and stay tuned to this blog for more information.

Book Your Seat for our “Love in the Time of Coronavius” Webinar Minicourse Now.



Houlfort, N., Philippe, F. L., Bourdeau, S., & Leduc, C. (2018). A comprehensive understanding of the relationships between passion for work and work-family conflict and the consequences for psychological distress. International Journal of Stress Management, 25(4), 313–329. https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000068

Lewis, S. C.,& Cooper, C. L. (1987). Stress in two-earner couples and stage in the life-cycle. Journal of Occupational Psychology, 60, 289-303.

Netemeyer, R. G., McMurrian, R., & Boles, J. S. (1996). Development and validation of work-family conflict and family-work conflict scales. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81 (4), 400-410.

Sears, M. S., Repetti, R. L., Robles, T. F., & Reynolds, B. M. (2016). I just want to be left alone: Daily overload and marital behavior. Journal of Family Psychology, 30(5), 569–579. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000197

Timmons, A. C., Arbel, R., & Margolin, G. (2017). Daily patterns of stress and conflict in couples: Associations with marital aggression and family-of-origin aggression. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(1), 93–104. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000227

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}