What happens to the dreams of living happily ever after when we are under stress?
Whether the stress is something major or is the cumulative effect of small daily hassles, stress can have large consequences over time on our close relationships.
Relationships magnify human emotions. This means that by sharing your joy, your love, your fear, and any other emotion, you make more of it. Therefore, it is important to understand what we want to promote and grow in our close relationships.
Stress can affect our personal lives and the quality of our close relationships in many ways. Most of the time, it is the stress in other areas of our lives that spills over into our personal relationships.
This is called cross-over stress, the stress from work that we transfer to our partner at home.
When we are stressed, we become more distracted, less connected, and less affectionate. We often also have less time to spend with our partners and we end up experiencing more conflict, distress, and distance in the relationship.
In addition, when we are stressed, we are more likely to notice all the negative aspects of our partner and we become either hypercritical or over-reactive. Or, we become more irritable and grumpy which increases the probability of communication problems and arguments.
Oftentimes when we are stressed—and we don’t get or ask for the support we need—we end up feeling alone and when we confront our partners for not supporting us, they often feel misunderstood. Most of the time, it wasn’t their intention to ignore us, but because our demands are increased, we enter into a vicious cycle of overactivation of our stress response which can become toxic for our physical and mental health and for the health of the relationship.
Research reveals that stress can indeed affect relationships.
More than a quarter of people surveyed in the Stress in America Survey felt disconnected from a close friend, a partner or a family member because of stress, or had arguments with people close to them. A study done in 2015 in Switzerland confirmed the results of the American survey. The study found that external stress crosses over into their relationships and the more stressors participants experienced outside the home, the more stress they carried into their relationship at home.
How does stress manifest in a relationship?
One way is that, compared to when we are calm when we are stressed we provide less support to our partners: we are less present, we share fewer hugs, kind words, and empathic responses.
Conversely, we might engage our partners in overly emotional ways that might be toxic for the couple.
When we are stressed out, we might engage in unhealthy behaviors or negative thoughts and, as a result, our partners might feel neglected and alone.
Over time, this can create emotional distance, a loss of intimacy, and in the end, the death of romance.
It is important to know how to regulate our emotions and how to stay connected with our partner under stress.
Our instinct is to keep our stress to ourselves. We think that if we don’t talk about it, we protect our partner from our problems. We try to stay positive and avoid bringing negativity into the relationship. However, this is a dysfunctional way of coping with stress. Firstly, because we are human and it is impossible to hide our emotions forever. Secondly, and most importantly, because we are missing an incredible opportunity for connection and for nurturing our relationship.
A study at the University of California, Los Angeles, showed that women who faced their loved one’s stress, offering comfort and support, experienced less activation in the amygdala—the brain area related to fear—and more activation of the brain’s reward system, with the result that they felt more connected with their partner.
It is important to learn to ask for help when we need it so that we can stay connected under stress. It is also important to understand what are your partner’s needs when they are under stress.
The act of discussing emotional needs builds intimacy and helps both you and your partner feel secure and loved. Sometimes you might discover that the emotional needs your partner has today are very different from the needs they had when you met.
Working to get to know these needs will improve your bond. You might also try to activate your brain system for caring and compassion through the release of oxytocin by simply hugging or cuddling together.
It is important for couples to discover and practice functional ways of coping with stress, that can restore emotional balance, renew intimacy, and maybe even revive the romance.
Consider these actions as steps you can take toward transforming your relationship from a cycle of stressful interactions into a place that allows growth and connection to happen.
1. Identify your stressors.
Is it work? Is it a health concern? Is the stress due to an overload of your schedule or responsibilities? As you identify your stressors pay attention to how your stress response is activated. Do you find yourself eating more, sleeping less, canceling your workouts and feeling more moody and irritable?
2. Connect and share your experience.
Speak from your heart. Listen to your partner’s response and then reflect back about what they have experienced while you were going through your stressful moment.
3. Strengthen your nervous system capacity to increase your resilience by taking care of yourself and practicing self-care rituals that can help restore balance and health to your mind and body. You can find helpful tips on my audio-training on the four science-based rituals of wellbeing.
How about when you’re dealing with a stressed partner?
The same steps apply:
1. Recognize their stress symptoms.
How does your partner act when they’re stressed? Ask yourself: How does my partner show his or her stress? How do their sleeping habits, eating habits, mood, energy levels or disposition change when they are stressed out?
For example, women are more likely to report physical symptoms than men. So it may be more difficult to read a man dealing with high stress.
2. Open the line of communication.
Oftentimes, when our partner is undergoing stress, they may feel lonely and vulnerable. Rather than giving in to the instinct of “let them deal with it,” you could make the effort to approach your partner and say something like, “You seem like you’re having a hard time. How can I help you?” This will open the line of communication and let your partner know that they can count on you for support.
If your partner opens up and shares, listen without judgment and resist the urge of fixing their problems. Be your partner’s number one fan and support them while they find their own way of dealing with the problem.
3. Increase their resilience by showing support and compassion. Offer them your support and love and show them some compassion for what they are experiencing. Go the extra mile… Complacency is the enemy of relationships so strive to be the best partner you can possibly be, not just good enough.
Finally, the fourth step involves both you and your partner. Seize stress as an opportunity for personal growth and to help your relationship thrive. Establish ways to transform stress into opportunities to create an emotional connection with your partner.
Dr. John Gottman, an American researcher who conducted over 40 years of research on relationships, calls these The Rituals of Connection:
1. Eat meals together without TV or Phone. Your emails and Facebook friends can wait.
2. Have stress-reducing conversations. Ask your partner, “How was your day?” and actively listen, taking turns at sharing with your partner the external stressors that you experienced during the day. Share how you feel, and show compassion to each other about your feelings.
3. Take a vacation or a lifetime of first dates. Don’t settle for the honeymoon being over. Spending time with your partner away from the daily hassles can help both of you to manage stress better. Even if it is just camping or a long weekend, find ways to celebrate and reward each other.
4. Exercise together. Go biking together or take a daily walk with your partner. Studies show that sharing an exciting experience can bring couples closer together.
5. Share a six-second kiss or a hug or hold hands. A daily intentional and mindful moment of physical connection will increase your emotional and physical intimacy and boost your oxytocin—the bonding hormone—which in turn will increase your capacity of connecting to others, improve your mood, and help you relax by countering the impact of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine.
Finally, if your relationship needs an extra dose of TLC, consider talking with a mental health practitioner specializing in couples. Oftentimes a third neutral person can help you learn ways to communicate and relate better and be more successful as a couple.
Increasing the mental and emotional capacity of yourself and your partner will create comfort and connection and a healthy, secure relationship which both of you can count on.
And remember to have fun… no matter where you are on your relationship journey you have the power to harness your stress into growth, health, and happiness!