Stress in Relationships

My partner always comes home stressed out about work, but he/she won’t talk to me. What can I do to get my partner to talk about his/her stress? What can I do to keep my stress from affecting my relationship?

There are a variety of stress reducing activities in the popular media today. However, most of these are individually focused (i.e. what can I do to reduce my stress). Of course many of these techniques work, but sometimes we need the help, comfort, support or encouragement of our partner. For this reason, this handout will focus on how to cope with stress in our relationships!!

A word on stress in marriage:

In his research on the effectiveness of marital therapy, Neil Jacobson found that one of the key variables in relapse after his own approach to marital therapy is whether stress from other areas of the couple’s life spilled over into the relationship. Couples who are overrun by this stress see their marriages relapse, while those who can help each other cope with it keep their marriages strong.

So what can we do to make sure our non-couple stress doesn’t affect our relationship?

There are many ways to make sure you don’t take out your work frustrations or child rearing annoyances on your partner. First and foremost, you need to talk about it! If you are stressed, don’t labor under the illusion that it will “just go away” or “I will just deal with it myself, I don’t want to stress out my partner by unloading my stress on him/her.” Next, use whatever stress reduction techniques you have used in the past which you know work for you. If going for a drive works, DO IT! If exercising works, DO IT. If talking it out works, DO IT!

However, in many cases, your partner wants to know what is going on in your life and would like to be a part of helping you through your stressful time. However, it is important to remember that we all experience stress in different ways. Some people just like to be left alone for a while before talking, some people can’t wait to get in the door to start discussing their frustrations. Furthermore, some people “just want to talk” about what is bothering them whereas others want to jump into problem solving mode. So how are you supposed to know how your partner would prefer to deal with his/her stress? ASK!

Here are some guidelines to help with these conversations.  Remember all the important things to remember when communicating about difficult issues such as:

  • Validation
  • Acceptance
  • Gender differences
  • Expectations
  • Sometimes it is difficult to listen to your partner when he/she is really angry about something that is making him/her stressed. It often feels like you are the one being attacked. If you are feeling this way, check with your partner to make sure this is really about non-couple stress.
  • “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” (Steven Covey)
  • Don’t trivialize your partner’s concerns.

Here are some additional tips (adapted from The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman):

  • Take turns – Each person takes time to vent their frustrations!
  • Don’t give unsolicited advice – If your partner has not asked for it, don’t give it!
  • Show genuine interest – Stay focused. Make eye contact. Ask questions.
  • Communicate your understanding – “I’m sorry she made you feel that way.” “How outrageous, that’s so unfair.” “You weren’t stupid, that could happen to anybody.”
  • Take your spouse’s side – Be supportive, even if you think his or her perspective is unreasonable. The point isn’t to be dishonest, timing is everything. When your partner needs support, give it to them.
  • Express a “we against others” attitude – Help your partner feel that he/she is not alone, that you will go through this together.
  • Validate emotions – Let your partner know that his or her feelings make sense to you!!



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