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How Stress Can Bury Love - The Way Back

Stress is sensory overload. Love, at its best, is sensory openness.

Our senses – touch, smell, taste, seeing, hearing, and intuition – are how we experience ourselves and others. When our ability to use them is undermined, so is our ability to connect intimately.

Imagine yourself so exhausted and pressured that you have no energy to respond to your partner’s needs, let alone take in what he or she may offer. Because that kind of burnout doesn’t happen overnight, you have most likely been preoccupied and unavailable for some time. Your partner is probably facing a different kind of exhaustion trying to awaken you from your internalized focus. Intimate partners become discouraged when their lovers suffer prolonged stress, and they stop trying to get the relationship back on track if their frustrations grow too painful to endure.

Like most people, your inability to fully utilize your senses will not have happened evenly. Your weakest link will have unraveled first. For example, you may have found yourself pulling away from your partner’s touch, no longer able to differentiate whether that physical connection will be demanding or healing. As a result, you may have encased yourself in an invisible bubble, shutting the world out in order to better cope. If you are with a partner who relies on touch to feel loved, you may have inadvertently sent the message that you no longer care.

You might have first become aware of your diminished capacity to feel your senses through your lack of emotional availability. You may have felt a major decrease in your ability to tolerate frustration. When you’ve had too much on your plate for a long time, behaviors in your partner that would normally be slightly irritating can feel like major disruptions to your peace of mind. The more protective part of your brain is in fight-flight mode, ready to react or disconnect at a moment’s notice. You’re tired and wired and any emotional request from your partner may seem overwhelming. An innocent question like, “How are you, sweetheart?” can bring out an irritated reaction, “How do you think I feel? I’m overloaded. Isn’t that obvious?”

Later, you lay awake at night, knowing you’re being a real jerk but even that worry makes you feel less OK. Anger is easy, but patience is in short supply. You’re aware that you’re not yourself and that you’re causing unfair distress in your partner, so you promise yourself you’ll be better as soon as “things let up.”

If you’ve been a partner who expressed your love through your ability to share your thoughts, you may have found yourself unable to use that once-comfortable vehicle to connect. Your frontal lobes, the parts of your brain that rely on options, have been uncharacteristically scrambling to sort out one idea from another. You’ve attempted to stay linear and rational, to just put one idea in front of the other and prioritize the outcome. You’ve found yourself mumbling out loud about conflicts and irresolvable problems.

Of course, your partner wanted to help. He or she offered suggestions, helpful hints and support to take some of the issues off your plate. Normally, you would have seen those offers as supportive. Now, you can’t trust any outside interference because it messes up your thinking, which is already on tilt, and you couldn’t find the clear direction you’ve been so used to using. So you’ve invalidated the offers and made your partner feel stupid and inappropriate. You were clearly suffering and unable to receive any aid. If your partner didn’t recognize that your brain wasn’t functioning and wandered into your distress by asking you for some advice, you may have been curt and dismissive, “Can’t you see I’m trying to figure something out? If I need help, I’ll ask you.” Your partner, having been used to solving problems together, is justifiably hurt, rejected or offended.

You’re looking for quick and easy fixes in the here-and-now. If you’re a stressed-out guy, you’re most likely thinking about having sex. That may be the temporary answer to your stressed-out prayers. You know from the past that if you can just experience that sweet release it will help you feel, think, and act rationally again. If you have an understanding partner and you don’t make a habit of sexual narcissism, she may gladly help you out just to have you back as a human being for a while.

If you’re a woman, things may work a little differently. Most women want some kind of connection before they are interested in intimacy. An exhausted, irritable, unavailable, and dismissive man does not qualify. You will probably pull away physically to get out of the line of fire, and wait for a chance to get closer again before you consider intimacy. You might find yourself saying something like, “I love you, sweetheart, but I find it really hard to hug a porcupine. Maybe we could call a truce here or something, and spend some healing time together first, OK?”

Some people first feel their stress through losing their ability to smell or taste. Whether odors are lush or irritating, the loss of the capacity to sense them can be a clue as to when a person is overloaded. A partner who hasn’t showered all day may smell sexy to you if you’re relaxed and open. That same aroma that felt warm and familiar before can now be offensive. Even a restaurant’s pungent specific scent that normally would start taste buds flowing can seem canned and uninteresting when a stressed-out person just wants food to ward off a hunger headache and can’t even taste the difference. The energy it takes to scan a menu, to wait for food, to even care what it tastes like, falls prey to getting the experience over with.

It is an established fact that your angle of vision narrows under stress. Emergency vehicles are not red, yellow and white because there was a paint sale. The full-width vision that most of us have narrows in to a much sharper visual angle when we’re overloaded, and other colors are more likely to go unseen. We’re focused on only what is ahead of us and solving the immediate problem ahead.

For example, you come home, with three more hours of work to do for a presentation in the morning, no sleep the night before, and no rest in sight for the rest of the week. Your traditionally desirable partner has prepared your favorite dinner and has some sensual music on in the background. She looks sexually interested and eager to please. But you can’t let yourself see it. It’s just too much visual and you don’t have the energy to take it in and respond. So you narrow your focus, stare directly ahead, and focus on something mundane: “Where’s that folder I left on the counter? It was right here. Did you throw it out for God’s sake?”

She follows your gaze and points to where it obviously is and is understandably miffed, but you can’t look beyond your distress or even acknowledge your attempt at diversion. What would have seemed delicious to you in the past has become a burden. She’s not happy and, deep down inside, you know what you’ve done isn’t right. Again, you promise yourself you’ll make it up to her, just as soon as you find some non-pressured time.

Hyper-focusing on visual details over a long period of time wears out the psyche. Pretty soon the thing you fear the most will happen. You’ll forget something important and reinforce your need to step up your vigilance. That state of constant anxiety only makes the situation worse. Your partner will either try to anticipate your every move to avoid being stung, or will write you off as an impossible person who just cannot be satisfied. If you once loved that person without getting in your own way, you may actually realize that you’re losing ground and take a good look at your self-destruction.

Your ability to hear your partner will also take a hit. Your partner may innocently try to relate the day’s events that you would normally be interested in. He or she gets a few words out, and you aren’t there anymore. Your inner noise has taken precedence, drowning out what may be an important request or sharing. Overloaded partners have no patience for stories, examples or uncertainties. They can only listen to chapter titles and summaries and often come to conclusions based on incomplete data.

I once heard a beleaguered wife, after weeks of attempting to get some attention from him, tell me how she finally broke through. In a sweet and loving voice, “By the way, darling, I crashed the car today and took out two others with it. It’ll only come to less than $15,000 and I don’t think we’ll get sued.”

Without missing a beat and continuing to look at his notes, he said, “Look, I’m really busy right now, so talk to me about it later.” Two hours later, he woke up from his self-imposed trance: “What did you say? You did what?”

She replied, “I was only trying to get your attention and it only took you two hours to hear what I said. That’s a record these days. Everything’s fine, honey. Just relax, OK? I’m just wondering if you can hear anything I say anymore. You are so preoccupied.”

Intuition can be significantly diminished by stress. It is one of our most crucial capabilities when it comes to loving and being loved. We can only pick up subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and body language when we’re tuned in. As pressure builds, we cannot stay in the moment or grounded in what is really important to maintain an intimate connection. We go from abstract to concrete, only paying attention to what is obvious and repeated.

Regenerating love counts on so much more than that. The special glances, warm affectionate sounds, and open arms easily fall prey when someone is preoccupied with prolonged worry about something else.

Even the most wonderful relationships can be seriously damaged if either person loses the ability to reach out in an empathic gesture or cannot be appropriately compassionate when needed. Prolonged stress depletes a relationship of its most important components: present-time deep attentiveness and the ability to live in one another’s hearts. Stressed-out people cannot maintain those gifts. They forget how to love or allow love to penetrate their preoccupied and pressured world. That disconnect from their own inner experiences transfers into becoming separate from the one they love.

The fastest way to de-stress is to get back in touch with your own six senses. Take time to breathe and deeply reflect. Remember how sweet it is to touch and be touched. Look at life with your lens wide open, taking in the beauty of all you can see, as would a blind person newly restored to sight. Listen to the sounds that regenerate you; music, laughter, humor, and the sweetness of your lover’s voice. Pick things up around you and press them to your face. Take a deep breath and breathe in the memories that emit from their scent. Let yourself taste things you love again. And let your imagination open up to possibilities again, thinking beyond the concrete into all that is possible, and live in the mind and heart of your partner .

Love will return.


Dr. Randi’s free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, is available at