Experiencing A Natural Disaster Can Bring Couples Closer — But Only For A While

By Emma Young

If you have a partner, how do you think your relationship would fare in the face of a natural disaster? Do you think it would bring you closer — or might the stresses make your relationship worse?

Various studies have explored this, and their conclusions have been mixed. But virtually all have been hampered by a lack of key data: measures of relationship satisfaction actually taken before a disaster (rather than later recalled), to compare with measures of satisfaction afterwards. A new paper in Psychological Science now plugs this gap. Hannah Williamson at the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues report a remarkable study of 231 couples living in Harris County, Texas, using data collected before and after Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the region in August 2017.

A few years before Harvey struck, the team had enrolled a diverse group of newlyweds for a study of relationship development in the early years. By August 2017, these couples had already individually completed a couples satisfaction survey on three occasions, each about six months apart. The team realised that they had, then, the perfect initial data set for a study of the impact of a natural disaster on couples.

About six, 12 and 18 months after the hurricane, the participants completed the couples satisfaction survey again. They also reported on how badly the hurricane had affected them — whether they’d had to evacuate their home or be rescued, and whether they’d been physically injured, for example. And they reported on levels of chronic stress and social support.

Typically, relationship satisfaction for newlywed couples follows this trajectory: initially, they’re very satisfied, but then both wives and husbands report a gradual and continuous decline over time.

That’s not what these couples experienced.

During the period before the hurricane, yes, they reported a gradual decline (and this was more pronounced for the wives than the husbands). But right after the hurricane, both partners enjoyed a similar leap in relationship satisfaction. This might have been down to going through the disaster together, with a partner who was also a victim, the researchers suggest. Whatever the reason, this longitudinal study certainly suggests that natural disasters tend to bring couples together, rather than drive them apart. But this didn’t last long…

“As the initial impact of the hurricane wore off, so too did the increase in satisfaction,” the team reports. Participants soon reverted to reporting the same rate of gradual decline in satisfaction as before the disaster. As life gradually returned to normal, perhaps previous relationship issues resurfaced, or became trickier to overlook.

There were some interesting extra findings. The size of the satisfaction jump was not related to how badly they were personally affected by Hurricane Harvey, or their levels of chronic stress and social support. But couples who’d reported poorer relationships before the hurricane did tend to report the biggest satisfaction jumps afterwards. However, this might be down to a ceiling effect — the couples who were most satisfied before Harvey struck didn’t have much room for improvement.

There are a few limitations to the work that are worth noting. This study was on newlyweds; perhaps couples who’ve been together for longer wouldn’t have the same experience. Also, the data was of course from one group of US residents living in one location. Still, the group was a close match for the diverse racial and ethnic make-up of people living in poverty in that area, the team notes. And as more disaster-prone regions of the US tend to be home to communities with a similar profile, the researchers argue that they represent a sample of people who are more vulnerable to natural disasters in the US, at least.

Natural disasters — whether hurricanes or wildfires or intense rainfall and flooding — are of course becoming more common, and more severe around the world. For anyone affected, their relationship with their partner is likely to be more important than any other for how they cope. This makes it ever more important to understand what impact disasters have on these relationships.

Experiencing a Natural Disaster Temporarily Boosts Relationship Satisfaction in Newlywed Couples

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest