Is stress harming your relationship? You may not be able to stop the stressors in your or your partner’s life, but you can help prevent them from spilling over and harming your relationship. Below are evidence-based tips for dealing with yours and your partner’s stressors.
How to deal with your own stress
- Understand your stress. Identifying what is making you stressed can help you figure out the best ways to deal with it. Think about what is making you feel overwhelmed right now and write it down. Seeing it on paper may help you start to create a plan for how to identify changes you can make to actually reduce the stressors from taking over.
- Increase your positive emotions. Regardless of the stressor, having more joy, gratitude, amusement, contentment, and love in your life will help combat the negative effects of stress. This doesn’t mean picking up a new time-intensive hobby (who has time for that?). It can be as small as taking a few minutes to listen to your favorite uplifting song during your commute. At dinner, instead of recounting your daily hassles (as is the norm), try taking the time to reflect on something good that happened that day. Pick a funny or inspiring show to watch in the evening as a mood boost. If you can, get out in nature—awe can help us feel like we have more time, which we all need when we’re stressed. Stress can harm your sleep, so take a few moments to think about something positive before you fall asleep. If you are up for it, try keeping a gratitude journal. Stress makes us focus on the negative, so you can help combat it by actively deciding to focus on the positive instead.
- Find calming activities. Feeling anxious and overwhelmed? Try to calm it down and help clear your head by finding an activity that makes you relax. An adult coloring book? Evening walk? Bubble bath?
- Take care of yourself. Stress can create a vicious cycle—we don’t sleep as well, don’t have time to exercise or eat well, and in turn, our bodies don’t have what they need to fight off the negative effects of stress. We’ve all had those weeks where we felt so overwhelmed we stopped taking care of ourselves. The problem is that without sleep, exercise, or nutritious food it’s like sending soldiers into war without weapons. When we are feeling stressed we need our bodies to be in fighting shape more than ever. So even when you don’t feel like you have time, make it a priority to sleep, exercise, and eat healthy food. Your stressor won’t have gone away but you’ll feel better able to cope after a good meal, a walk, and a good night of sleep.
- Reappraise and reframe your stressor. Stressful experiences aren’t necessarily bad. What’s bad is when you don’t feel like you have the resources to deal with them. When people experience a stressor but feel they have the resources (e.g., smarts, time, money, support) to cope with it, they feel challenged ("good" stress). When they don’t have the resources, they feel threatened ("bad" stress). One way you can help prevent stress from negatively affecting your relationships is by reappraising it as a challenge rather than a threat. Make the stressor an exciting challenge to overcome rather than an overwhelming event by finding the resources you need to meet the problem head-on. This may mean asking your partner for help.
How to deal with your partner’s stress
Having a partner who is there for you and provides you with the type of support you need can go a long way towards preventing stress spillover. How do you be there for your partner?
- Talk to your partner. Learn about how they react when stressed and ask them what you can do to support them effectively during a stressful time. Ask them how you act when you are stressed (it’s amazing what other people see that we miss about ourselves!). Just taking the time to talk and figure out that you haven't had as much time together or your partner has been snappish due to stress and not some underlying issue in the relationship may go a long way towards preventing stress from spilling over and creating larger problems. But don’t just talk about the stressor—stress makes people withdraw and creates alienation, so set aside time to just talk and connect. One way to make sure this happens is to actually put it in your calendars.
- Support each other. The more support people get from their partners, the less stress spills over and harms the relationship. You can do this by being responsive when your partner talks about their stress and by providing your partner with instrumental (taking care of household chores) and emotional (listening to them complain) support. And make sure to ask for support when you need it. We aren't all mind-readers, especially if we are stressed ourselves.
- Make time for positive moments. Just as you need to boost your own positive emotions, having more positive experiences as a couple can help buffer against the negative moments that are inevitable when one or both of you is really stressed. Again, this doesn’t need to be something time consuming that will cause more stress. Just take the time to share positive memories over dinner, watch a comedy show together, go on an evening walk after dinner, or forward your partner the funny news articles you read during the day. These tasks not only lift your mood, but they also help you stay connected.
- Help your partner take care of themself. Support your partner in getting sleep, exercise, and eating well. Even if this means your partner spends more time away from you sleeping or exercising, sometimes less time with each other is better if the time you do have is higher quality.
- If your current situation isn’t working, work together to find creative solutions. Have a brainstorming session to see if you can come up with ways to fix your situation to alleviate some of your stress or find ways to effectively prevent it from hurting your relationship.
Now your challenge is to actually try to implement a few of these suggestions. When you are stressed, it may be particularly hard to change course and you are more likely than ever to make poor choices (depleted cognitive resources!). Even when not stressed, we are bad at predicting what is actually going to change how we feel.
So if you are questioning whether listening to a good song in the car or saying what you are grateful for before bed will really do anything for your stress levels, force yourself to try it out and see.
Bodenmann, G., & Shantinath, S. D. (2004). The Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET): A new approach to prevention of marital distress based upon stress and coping. Family Relations, 53(5), 477-484.
Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2004). How does context affect intimate relationships? Linking external stress and cognitive processes within marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(2), 134-148.
Falconier, M. K., Jackson, J. B., Hilpert, P., & Bodenmann, G. (2015). Dyadic coping and relationship satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 42, 28-46.