How To Deal with Stress in a Relationship
When you and your partner manage stress differently, it can be extremely challenging. Here are some tips for handling those differences without being at each other's throats.
Do you manage your stress differently than your partner? More likely than not, you and your partner "do" stress differently. That may have even been part of their initial appeal, but holy shit, can it feel annoying when you are deep in your own challenging moment, and your partner doesn't get it, or they are having a moment of their own.
For the TL;DR crowd, dealing with stress in a relationship takes three steps.
1. Understand what triggers you and how you respond to stress.
2. Talk to your partner about what is happening – clear communication leads to results.
3. Ask for what you need. This is difficult to do, but if you don't ask, you don't get.
To manage these differences, the first order of business is to understand your own stress triggers and responses.
To be frank, without this, you and your partner will stay in your stress vortex of misunderstanding. (Too dramatic of an image?) Understanding how you manage your stress is so important because once you understand yourself, you can then communicate this information to your partner and ask for what you need.
We are ultimately responsible for teaching our partners how to best care about us.
That's right. I'll say it again for those in the back--WE are responsible for teaching THEM how to best care for us. Truthfully, I was super annoyed when I first learned this because it shattered the fantasies that rom-coms taught me that one day I would find someone to "complete me" without having to utter a word about how to do it. Our partners may know us really, really well, but they are not telepathic. Even if they are, it still behooves us to understand ourselves well enough to understand how stress impacts us and what things make us feel better.
For example, I know that if there are eight million things happening at the same, all of which I care deeply about, I can quickly become overwhelmed and anxious (e.g., writing deadlines, heavy client load, children in need of schooling, other children in need of a little extra attention, husband with his own busy schedule, multiple social commitments, friends in crisis, parents in need of caretaking.) This may show up as weepiness, snarkiness, or both.
If I didn't know these things were triggers, and I wasn't aware of my stress responses, it could easily end up putting a strain on my relationship. I might spread my negativity and snark throughout my household like a bad cold. I could search out people to blame for my feelings to alleviate my suffering. Perhaps I would hide away from my friends and loved ones, leaving them feeling hurt and confused by my absence.
I'll be honest - all of these things have happened (and sometimes still do), but once I took the time to figure out what was actually happening to me, I could take the steps necessary to avoid the collateral damage of my stress.
This brings us to the next step: communicate what is happening to your partner!
As you might imagine, if any of the things I mentioned in my example above are happening and I don't explain to my partner that I am stressed, the chances of him taking it personally or being reeeeeeaaalll pissed off are pretty high. And he would be well within his rights to feel either of these things.
However, if I can say to him, "Hey, look, all of these things are going on, and I am totally overwhelmed. I'm not myself right now, and my weepiness/snarkiness are showing up because of that" or some other version of, "It's not you, it's me." He may still feel some kind of way about what's happening, but it's much less likely to feel so personal.
We can be on the receiving end of this too, and I'm here to tell you it feels shitty.
My husband, Bryan's go-to strategy for dealing with stress, is total shut-down. To the untrained eye, he looks like a human operating normally. However, for the person who has been with him for 20+ years and is highly attuned to the slightest change in emotional vibration (also known as me), it feels anything other than "normal." It feels like icy silence. Until he reached a point in his life where he knew what was going on within himself, I was left feeling extremely hurt by the sudden disconnection.
It makes a world of difference that we can both now turn to the other and say, "What's up? Everything ok?" And the other can articulate what's going on with us and why.
Sometimes it takes a minute to sort it out, and over time we have grown in our patience and ability to help the other person so that. (And no, it doesn't matter that initially in my head I'm asking, "What the fuck is your problem?" because what comes out of my mouth is the nice version I mentioned above…mostly)
The last step, which is also the most important and the hardest, is asking for what you need.
In theory, this should be easy. Just open your mouth and say the words that will tell your partner what you need to feel better. In practice, that can often feel damn near impossible.
Part of why this is difficult is because you might not know what you need. In the example I mentioned previously, I'm not always sure what I need when I am overwhelmed. Sometimes I need Bryan to take one of the eight million things off my plate. Other times I need to vent and be heard, and when things feel real dire, I probably need to crawl under a blanket on the couch by myself, binge watch Canine Intervention, and cry about how much I love the dogs.
Asking for what you need is also hard because it is remarkably vulnerable.
You see, if you never ask for anything, you won't feel as hurt if you don't get it. That's not actually true, but it's what the protective system in your brain tells you. However, if you ask for something from your partner and they don't understand it or do it, it can feel like rejection. We are wired to respond very poorly to rejection, so we often avoid anything that has even a one percent chance of causing it.
Here's where we get back to that thing about us being responsible for teaching our partners how best to care for us. If they don't know (because they don't practice mental telepathy) and we don't tell them, the likelihood of them magically giving us the thing that makes us feel less stressed is between zero and none. Ok, fine, there may be a slight chance they get it right, but the odds aren't in your favor.
If you communicate with your partner about what you need, getting something close to The Thing increase, and the chances of getting The Exact Thing significantly increase.
People often imagine it won't feel as good if they have to ask for something from their partner. I promise you that is rare. It feels great to get what you need when you need it.
Here are some examples of what this might look like:
Partner #1: "My brain is fried from this week. I could really use some alone time to regroup. Would you be cool with taking the kids out for breakfast on Saturday morning so that I can sit by myself and drink coffee? Did I mention I'd like to be by myself, alone, without anyone speaking to me?"
Partner #2: (enthusiastically) Sure thing! We'll go to that greasy diner that you hate.
Partner #1: "I'm having a hard time lately with all the hard family stuff from the last few months. I would love a weekend where I could just laugh and act ridiculous. Are you ok with me setting up a trip with my friends next month?"
Partner #2: "That sounds like a great idea. I bet you could use Mike and Caroline's lake house. I think some fun would be good medicine for you right now."
In these scenarios, the responses are generous, and I recognize that isn't always the case. However, most people would like to meet their partner's needs, but they don't know how, and they may give up trying if they feel like they can't get it right.
Your clear communication is like giving them the Cliff Notes for taking care of you in the best way possible. It makes it SO much easier.
You can also increase the likelihood of a generous response to your requests by doing the same for your partner. Good begets good. If this isn't the case in your relationship, and your requests aren't ever met with generosity or honored, we need to have a different kind of conversation.
Over the last year, most of us have experienced lots of stress in big and small ways and long periods. It feels so much worse when you and your partner are at each other's throats because the way you "do" stress is not the same. No one needs added stress. Take a minute. Use these steps. Feel better.