What if relationships were stress reducing rather than stress inducing?
Is being “stressed out” the new normal? That is the question raised by the 2012 Stress in America Survey recently released by the American Psychological Association. The survey shows that most Americans are experiencing high levels of stress and that their stress has increased in the past year. The survey results show women having higher stress levels than men, but the top sources of stress for both men and women are the same: money, work and the economy.
Unfortunately, some of us experience our relationship as an added stress. Sometimes we may even dread seeing each other when we come home from work at night. But imagine what it would be like if relationships were stress reducing rather than stress inducing. What if a relationship were experienced as an oasis rather than an obligation? You might look forward to sharing your highs and lows of the day with each other. It would make dealing with the obstacles we inevitably confront in life much more manageable and solvable. That is what is possible if we cooperate, support each other and work together as partners in dealing with the challenges we face, particularly in light of the economic stresses occurring in America today.
Perhaps the most damaging obstacle couples in America face today is an exaggerated individualistic work ethic that says “produce and achieve at all costs.” This kind of attitude often increases feelings of pressure and competitiveness within our couple, with loyalty to our job taking priority over loyalty to the relationship and even the family. There is only a limited amount of energy for connecting with others in a day, and if all your capacity for bonding is given to coworkers or clients, the bonds to your couple and family will suffer.
What is needed instead is a commitment to make time for relationships at home and communicating shared experiences on a daily basis. We must also continue to work towards creating healthy workplaces that support family values. This is consistent with the intention of the “Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards” given annually at the upcoming APA Leadership Conference. (See our next blog for award winners!)
Money is very difficult for couples to talk about, even more so than talking about sex. That may be one of the reasons that the more economic stress couples experience, the more instability and tension get expressed in the family. It is important to feel free to talk about fears and concerns about money. When you do, you may find that it is more yourfear than your actual income that is creating the stress. Sharing your fears and goals and cooperating about dealing with money issues will make a big difference in your attitude and your circumstances. One couple, Mary and David, often fought about how bills were paid and about the frequent over-drafts to their joint bank account. They tried switching off who was responsible for paying the bills, but that only increased their feelings of isolation and blame. Mary and David thought more about ways to cooperate about it and found that by working together on their finances, they were able to manage their money more efficiently and also increase their intimacy in other areas of their relationship as well. They would meet once a week over dessert and coffee to organize the bills and discuss their payment plan. This turned a painful circumstance into an enjoyable evening.
One of the casualties of a stressful work life is creating quality time for anything, especially physical intimacy. By the end of a long day, you both may just be too tired or too pre-occupied with other things to have the energy for any kind of intimate communication, verbal or physical. This often leads to a kind of sexual apathy that exists whether one or both of the partners work outside the home. Dual-career couples are even more likely to experience this lack of desire, perhaps finding it difficult to switch gears from being task-oriented at work all day to being tender and loving at night. (Or they may be getting intimate with someone at work, where they spend most of their time. That is a topic of a future blog.) On top of everything, if there are children in the mix, emotional energy, time and money must now be spread among the needs of the whole family. Marriage and parenthood compete for limited personal and financial resources.
But all is not lost! In spite of some inevitable work related stress, it is possible to build intimacy into your regular routine with your partner. First of all, make it a priority. And it doesn’t have to take much time or money.
--Get in the habit of saying a brief positive statement together before you leave the house and again when you return at night. It might be a “couple proclamation” of the current vision for your relationship, or just an intention or vision for that day. You might want to add some nonverbal gesture such as a hug or a kiss or a wink after you say it.
-- Set aside a brief period of time each day to just be together to talk and relax. (You may even notice that it may eventually put you in the mood for more physical intimacy as well.)
--Begin and end each day by acknowledging each other for something your partner has contributed to the relationship. Never underestimate the power of acknowledgment:
“Acknowledgment is not an expensive commodity, but we are often stingy with it. That is a sad state of affairs, especially since…this simple act of positive attention is what people need most—even more than expressions of love—to function well…The emphasis is on acknowledging not just what you did but also how being Couple, your commitment and vision for lifelong love, made that accomplishment possible.” (See Lifelong Love: 4 Steps to Creating and Maintaining an Extraordinary Relationship, pp. 131-132, Harlequin, 2012). eannniii