How both partners' individual differences, stress, and behavior predict change in relationship satisfaction: Extending the VSA model

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Jul 6;118(27):e2101402118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2101402118.


We pooled data from 10 longitudinal studies of 1,104 married couples to test the Vulnerability-Stress-Adaptation (VSA) model of change in relationship satisfaction. Studies contained both spouses' self-reports of neuroticism, attachment anxiety, and attachment avoidance; observational measures of engagement and opposition during problem-solving discussions at baseline; and repeated reports of both spouses' stress and marital satisfaction over several years. Consistent with the VSA model, all three individual and partner qualities predicted changes in marital satisfaction that were mediated by observations of behavior and moderated by both partners' experiences with stress. In contrast to the VSA model, however, rather than accentuating the association between individual differences and behavior, both partners' stress moderated the strength, and even direction, of the association between behavior and changes in marital satisfaction over time. Taken together, these findings indicate that 1) qualities of both couple members shape their behavioral exchanges, 2) these behaviors explain how individuals and their partners' enduring qualities predict relationship satisfaction, and 3) stress experienced by both couple members strongly determines how enduring qualities and behavior predict changes in relationship satisfaction over time. The complex interplay among both partners' enduring qualities, stress, and behavior helps explain why studies may fail to document direct main effects of own and partner enduring qualities and behavior on changes in relationship satisfaction over time.

Keywords: attachment security; interpersonal communication; marriage; personality; stress.

MeSH terms

  • Behavior*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Marriage*
  • Models, Psychological*
  • Personal Satisfaction*
  • Spouses*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*