Stressful life circumstances such as not enough money to pay the bills, family members with health problems or figuring out who will do what of the too-much work of running a home clearly can create stress in relationships. At the same time, how a couple talks over these stressful problems either reduces or magnifies the tensions caused by the initial problem. Marriage arguments are the last thing you need when you're already trying to deal with a tough situation. Stress in relationships zooms up if the way you talk with each other raises any of the following concerns:
1. Will the relationship continue?
Survival of relationships, like personal survival, is a paramount concern.
What can help reduce concerns over whether your relationship will survive? Discussions about commitment can help. If the commitment to stay together forever is not there, find out your and your partner's underlying concerns. Put out on the table what would be the deal-breakers. Clarify what thoughts and fears hold either of you back from a full commitment.
2. Does my partner like me or not?
As the song says so well, just about everyone wants R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The opposite of respect and affection is conveyed by criticism, sarcasm or judgmental voice tones.
If you are getting excessive criticism, or giving it, or if the tone of voice and words you use with each other convey "You're not ok" instead of acceptance, discuss what lies behind these negative messages. Discuss also who in each of your families of origin may have modeled derogatory behavior toward their spouse. Awareness leads to change.
Also, receiving negative messages as if they are normal and ok with you is a big mistake. As soon as you hear unfriendly or disrespectful words or tone of voice, explain that the tone is uncomfortable for you. Without feedback, your partner will keep doing more of the same.
3. Do I have equal power here?
Power balance means that both of you have a voice and that you regard the input of each of you as having equal importance. The opposite would be if one of you experiences the other as controlling.
4. Do I have autonomy?
Paradoxically, people need independence as well as connection. Losing your identity is too high a price to pay for partnership.
Psychologist Andras Agyal articulated this paradox brilliantly in his 1965 book Neurosis and Treatment. Freedom to be an autonomous person is vital simultaneously with a sense of belonging.
The “Incredible String Band” similarly expresses this paradox in the lyrics of one of their songs: “What is it that I am? And what am I a part of?” If you are feeling stressed because you are feeling too little sense of living your own life as opposed to being a partner in a relationship, figure out what activities you could be doing on your own that would be most appealing and meaningful.
5. Is this a safe place?
Behavior that makes you feel unsafe, emotionally, physically or economically, in a relationship is always out of bounds.
If you are feeling unsafe, consult a program in your area for victims of abuse.
Communication skill-glitches when couples talk together increase stress.
Skills enable basketball players to become a winning team. Insufficient skills increase stress on the team because the players then trip each other up, anger each other by not passing appropriately or shooting effectively, and can't accomplish the job of scoring points and winning,
Couples with insufficient skills inadvertently antagonize each other by triggering the five concerns listed above. At the same time, they increase stress in their relationship by being less able to come up with good solutions to the problems they face.
The following five skill deficits are especially likely to compound relationship stress when couples face tough situations.
In my book and online skill-building program called Power of Two I refer to sentences that start with the word you as “crossovers.” That’s because when someone starts a sentence with the word you, the sentence crosses over the boundary that defines the other person’s space. The crossing may be to criticize, to tell the other what to do, to guess what the other person is thinking or feeling. In all these cases, invading another person’s personal space feels threatening, and all the more so if the content is negative.
The antidote to crossovers is I-messages and good questions. The rule is "I can talk about myself (my thoughts and feelings) or ask about my partner's. No speaking for or assuming I can guess my partner's thoughts or feelings. Instead, ask.
7. Listening to disparage or discard data instead of listening to understand and digest it.
If you listen for what’s wrong in what you hear and immediately point that out, the person who just tried to share information with you is going to feel stressed. If your partner dismisses what you try to convey, you will feel stressed.
Learn good listening skills. Otherwise dialogue is like playing catch with someone who always drops the ball.
8. Getting emotionally worked up, particularly in anger
Getting overly-emotional, either defensive or aggressively, switches the tone from friendly to adversarial. When a relationship turns adversarial, the benefits of affection, support and the like evaporate.
Anger undermines feelings that the relationship is a safe and supportive one. Decide as a couple that if either of you begins to leave the calm zone and become angry, both of you will exit briefly into separate rooms to calm down. For details of how to use mutual exits to prevent fighting, see this post.
9. Staying silent about concerns lest they provoke a fight.
This seemingly safe route is not so safe.
Staying mum when something is stressful for you is likely to allow the situation to continue and to cause your stress to fester and flourish. Refraining from speaking up diminishes a sense of personal power in a relationship and invites depression.
Better to learn to raise issues in a gentle way so the two of you can talk them through productively. See this post for details.
10. Dominating to get your way, insisting, convincing and proving you are right.
If you want one thing and your partner another, you’re at risk for launching a stressful battle to see who will win and who will lose.
The magic trick for reducing rising stress levels around who will get their way is to let go of advocating for your concern. Instead, explain why you want what you have suggested. Find out the concerns that are motivating your partner to want something difference.
Once you both understand the why’s, the underlying concerns, building a win-win solution can become a fun and creative activity. That’s why in my Power of Two book and online program, I call this kind of shared problem-solving the win-win waltz. See point #3 for links to blogposts that teach win-win skills.
Without collaborative decision-making, one of you is likely to wind up winning and the other losing. That’s a recipe for relationship stress.
In sum, what can you do to minimize these sources of relationship stress?
Life inevitably from time to time puts stressful challenges on the path of every couple. Can you and your life partner talk quietly together when sensitive issues come up, share your concerns, listen to genuinely understand each other’s perspectives, and create a plan of action that feels positive to you both?
If not, no need to panic. The game's not over. You just need to learn and practice the skills that enable being in a committed partnership to be a safe and supportive addition to your life.
If your skills for talking together about sensitive issues are sufficient, stresses will become opportunities to enjoy the benefits of true partnership. Working out solutions to challenges between you, that's when being a couple brings ultimate blessings of affection and a joyfully shared life.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.
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