Every couple goes through ups and downs in their relationship. The stress can come from health issues, the bad economy, or just the regular strain of everyday life. Here are some suggestions garnered from my marriage to Greg of 24 years and my counseling work with couples.
Practice acceptance. Look for an answer to the problem if possible, but realize some problems don’t have easy, obvious solutions. If there was an easy answer, you would have already done it! Acceptance doesn’t mean you like or approve of something. It’s simply pausing and noting where you are.
Stay on the same team. Acknowledge the fact that the situation is stressful, but that neither you nor your partner is to blame. One way Greg and I do this is to make "I wish" statements. For example, if we're incredibly busy and don't have as much time for each other as we’d like, we both make an effort to say things like, "I wish I had more time to spend with you. I really miss you," or "I wish things were different for you and me right now."
Turn the problem into an “It”. Rather than turning on each other, focus on the situation as the problem. Have you ever had the flu at the same time as your partner? When this happened to us, were we ever sorry sights! We both felt that we had such incredible needs, with no one to meet them. Simple statement such as, "I'm sorry I'm so sick and can't take care of you better," went a long way to making us feel more connected.
Rally your resources. Depending on the situation, it can also help to look for outside support. When Greg and I both had the flu, we called my brother and sister-in-law to ask whether they could help out with our son (he was quite young at the time). Who can you reach out to for support?
Be comfortable with flexible roles. During times of stress it’s natural to become more rigid and set in your ways. But this is exactly the time when it’s helpful to be flexible with everything from who does the chores to who carries the emotional load.
Show tolerance for each other’s reactions. Not everyone reacts to stress in the same way, and no one way is right or wrong. For example, Greg is more likely to zone out watching sports and I’m more likely to have a good cry.
Laugh when you can. Nurturing your sense of humor can be another great asset in learning to embrace the ups and downs. Try saying something out of character to shake things up a bit. Once when Greg and I hadn’t been getting along too well for a few days, without thinking, I borrowed a line from the old television show Roseanne and yelled at him, "I hate you and everything you stand for." I don't watch television very much, and I'm not at all the yelling type. What possessed me to do that, I have no idea. The comment was ridiculous, because we share the same values and stand for the same things. Perhaps the absurdity helped the situation. We started laughing, and were then able to discuss what we needed to in a productive manner.
Make a survival plan. Figure out what really needs to be done, and what can wait until things get back to normal. Try to reduce both your loads in whatever ways you can. Make sure that both you and your partner are eating and sleeping as well as you can. And keep your expectations realistic. Sometimes simply making it through the day can be a big accomplishment for couples going through a stressful time.
Find even small ways to stay connected. If you're going through difficult times, feel drained, and don't have much energy to care for your relationship, at least look for ways to stay connected. For example, small acts of affection are helpful.
Practice compassion. Realize that both you and your partner are doing the very best you can at this precise moment.
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I also write at The Self-Compassion Project, with its own Facebook page here.
I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.
Photo credits: Aussie Gall Beverly & Pack K Hurley Emory Co Photo via photopin CC 2.0