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Stress

5 Ways Relationships Can Survive the Most Stressful Times

3. Make your support explicit.

Key points

  • Life’s stressors can spill over into our relationships, creating struggles between partners.
  • Partners can plan ahead in stressful times with the expectation that they may face overwhelm and conflict.
  • Partners can discuss the unique ways they each experience stress, work to reconnect after conflict, and savor positive interactions.
  • Couples can be strategic about how they support each other, and in reaching outside their relationship for additional help.
Dave Smallen/Generated with DALL-E
Source: Dave Smallen/Generated with DALL-E

During stressful times—such as the busy end of the year—the added strains of life can seep into relationships.

When daily struggles have us at the limit of what we can cope with, even a minor misunderstanding with our partner can tip us over the edge, overwhelming us, making us irritable, and creating conflict in our relationship.

When you know you are facing a stressful time, taking on the outlook that you can expect to experience more overwhelm in your relationship can help you plan ahead for how to stay on track as a couple to cope together as a team.

Here are five things to consider doing when facing stress:

1. Discuss How You Each Respond to Stress

Everyone experiences stress, is impacted by stress, and copes with stress in their own way. When partners are both stressed out, though, their individual responses to stress may be at odds.

For example, some of us tend to seek out a lot of connection and reassurance from our partner when overwhelmed, while others become more reserved and seek time alone to decompress. If both partners are overwhelmed, this can lead to a struggle where one partner feels rebuffed and the other feels pressured.

By discussing how each of you tends to feel and think and act when you're overwhelmed, you can build a shared understanding of each other’s tendencies. This can help you make sense of your partners’ behavior such that it doesn’t feel personal: They are behaving in response to their own heightened emotions, rather than as a reaction to you.

2. Remember to Repair

During stressful times, with emotions heightened and energy reserves drained, you likely can’t help but fall into some discord. This is to be expected—all relationships, no matter how healthy, have conflict.

What matters for relationships in the long run is not whether you have conflicts or not, but that you reconnect emotionally after the conflict subsides—doing what psychologists call repair.

If you can, choose a time when you can give one another full attention, and listen without judgment, doing your best to understand and respect each other's perspectiveeven if you still disagree—and making sure to express how much you care about each other. Doing so helps you develop more closeness and trust in your relationship–as you are each demonstrating that you can be there for each other even when you both feel vulnerable.

Dave Smallen/Generated with DALL-E
Source: Dave Smallen/Generated with DALL-E

3. Be Explicit About Support

I have written elsewhere about the different kinds of support that partners may offer each other. In stressful times it can be helpful for you and your partner to articulate what actions are most supportive to each of you.

Two common ways partners offer support are:

  • Emotional support, which involves expressing empathy, concern, and encouragement. For example, offering a listening ear and a hug when your partner has had a tough day.
  • Tangible support, which involves helping your partner with practical things toward solving their problems. For example, taking on a chore that they usually do around the house.

Everyone has their own individual preferences around the support they like to offer and receive—and each situation may require a different nuance in what kind of support is needed. Often people feel best solving their own struggles in their own way, and so will resist their partner offering tangible support to solve the issue for them. Instead, they may desire emotional support to help calm down or cheer up so they feel ready to face the issue on their own.

So, being clear about the type of support you are seeking helps your partner to better be there for you. Likewise, asking what kind of support your partner may benefit from will help you to effectively show up for them.

4. Diversify Support

Contemporary cultural expectations put huge pressure on partners to be everything to each other: best friend, economic partner, fitness buddy, emotional confidant, and so on. While we may be able to take on most of these roles most of the time for our partner, these are actually historically broad expectations to be placed on just one relationship.

In times of stress, when we are working with limited emotional and physical resources, such expectations are especially difficult to live up to. It may therefore be useful to spread out your support team beyond just your partner if you can.

Considering what support from family, friends, or community is available may reduce the pressure that stress is putting specifically on your relationship.

5. Notice and Celebrate Positive Moments

Even in disasters, people may have positive moments of connection. Whenever you have an opportunity, express gratitude and appreciation for your partner, give them a hug, pause, and notice together that this is a very challenging time and you are coping awesomely together in so many ways.

One way to strengthen the sense of safety and connection between you and your partner is to celebrate the positive things that happen in each other’s days––what relationship scientists call "capitalization." Opening up about something you accomplished or are simply feeling relieved about gives your partner a chance to say “I’m so happy for you.” This shows that you are paying attention and care about their emotional experiences–a simple way to keep relationships tuned up during tough times.

Just Do What You Can

Of course, in stressful times things may be too chaotic and too overwhelming to practice new relationship skills. Maybe the best you can do is to find 30 seconds alone with one another, without technology, without discussing the practicalities of managing life, to express just how much you care about each other.

Facebook image: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

References

Bodenmann, G. (2005). Dyadic coping and its significance for marital functioning. Couples Coping with Stress: Emerging Perspectives on Dyadic Coping, 1(1), 33-50.

Finkel, E. J., Cheung, E. O., Emery, L. F., Carswell, K. L., & Larson, G. M. (2015). The suffocation model: Why marriage in America is becoming an all-or-nothing institution. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24(3), 238–244.

Gable, S. L., & Reis, H. T. (2010). Good news! Capitalizing on positive events in an interpersonal context. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (1st ed., Vol. 42). Elsevier.

Gold, C. M., & Tronick, E. (2020). The power of discord: Why the ups and downs of relationships are the secret to building intimacy, resilience, and trust. Little, Brown Spark.

Simpson, J. A., & Rholes, W. S. (2017). Adult attachment, stress, and romantic relationships. Current opinion in psychology, 13, 19-24.

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