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How to handle relationship stress

Learn how to manage relationship stress and build a stronger partnership

How does your relationship normally function? Most likely, you and your partner get along and are able to thrive together. But what happens when something goes wrong, and one or both of you begin to feel stressed out? How does stress affect relationships, and what can you do to strengthen your partnership against life’s inevitable stressors?

Relationship stress can take a toll on the strongest of bonds. When stress enters any relationship, it has the potential to create distance, disagreements and disconnection between you and your partner. But by supplying a steady supply of support for your partner when he or she is stressed, not only can you learn how to deal with stress and relationships, you’ll also create a new level of intimacy that actually brings you both closer together.

Understanding relationship stress

Dealing with relationship stress is never easy, but it’s part of life. Even if your partner has consistently been the anchor in your relationship, there will eventually come a time when his or her tank is running on empty and you will be given the opportunity to provide the love and support that is needed. And while you may find it to be difficult to help your partner during times of stress, generating the mental and emotional resources to help your partner will not only create comfort and connection but a healthy, secure base in the relationship that both partners can consistently count on.

How does stress affect relationships?

A better question might be “How does stress not affect relationships?” Research shows that stress spills over into our relationships, causing a wide range of problems. When people are under a lot of stress, they become distracted, withdrawn and less affectionate. Leisure activities are relegated to the back burner, which creates alienation from social groups, including one’s partner.

When we’re under stress, it brings out our worst traits. We’re depleted of cognitive resources, which makes us hyper-vigilant and oversensitive to criticism. Since we’re more irritable, we’re more likely to fight over issues we’d normally drop – and if relationship stress was already a problem, it will increase tenfold when external stressors are added to the equation. 

Men and women react differently to relationship stress

Men and women react differently to stress. One of the fundamental reasons for this has to do with varying stress hormones. When stress strikes, the body releases hormones called cortisol and epinephrine that raise blood pressure and circulate blood sugar level. Oxytocin is then released from the brain, countering the impact of cortisol and epinephrine by relaxing emotions.

Men release less oxytocin than women when they are stressed, meaning they have a stronger reaction from both cortisol and epinephrine. A study published in Psychological Review suggested that this caused women to be more likely to handle stress by “tending and befriending” – that is, nurturing those around them in an effort to both protect themselves and their young. Men, however, release smaller doses of oxytocin, which makes them more likely to have the “fight or flight” response when it comes to stress, either repressing their emotions and trying to escape the situation, or fighting back.

So what does this all mean for stress and relationships?

That in many cases, a woman’s identity and sense of self-esteem are both closely linked to her feelings of adequacy in relationships. She is likely to appreciate feeling wanted, receiving expressions of comfort and caring, and generally being taken care of. So when relationship stress goes unmitigated, women are more likely than men to feel personally inadequate. 

Men, on the other hand, are more invested in performance and competition. So when faced with relationship stress, your male partner may be more receptive to offers of assistance with tasks as well as expressions of appreciation and recognition. When it comes to stress and relationships, the gender difference means that partners may speak different emotional languages, making it difficult to “hear” their partner’s experience.

Stress and relationships: Recognizing the symptoms

How does your partner act when they’re stressed? Hectic schedules and everyday work-life demands make it easy to become wrapped up in our own worlds. But when we lose sight of our partner’s stress, then we are not communicating and we are not connecting. This is why it is imperative to make the extra effort to recognize when you’re dealing with a stressed partner.

To answer “How does stress affect relationships?” first ask yourself, “How does my partner show his or her stress? How do his or her sleeping habits, eating habits, mood, energy levels or disposition change?”

Women, in particular, are more likely to report physical symptoms associated with stress than men, which means it may be more difficult to read a man dealing with high-stress levels. But by staying in tune with your partner, you will find opportunities to express your support and love, helping your partner endure demanding times while strengthening your relationship. In this way, figuring out how to deal with stress and relationships can benefit both of you in the long run.

Excessive relationship stress

Some relationship stress is normal, but how much is too much? A “normative” level of relationship stress looks like this: occasional misunderstandings, room for improvement in your communication skills or a minor mismatch between expectations. When these occurrences become the “norm” in your relationship, it’s time to reevaluate. Of particular concern is a lack of follow-through or commitment. Also consider your relationship’s age (i.e. stress in a new relationship is a huge red flag); frequency (i.e. some one-off relationship issues are less concerning than habitual ones); how much relationship stress your partner triggers (i.e. if your partner forgets to fold the socks, that is less stressful than his or her infidelity) and the overall emotional “flavor” of your relationship (i.e. if you’re consistently sad, angry, fearful or disappointed by your partner, there’s work to do on the relationship).

How to reduce relationship stress 

Your connection is key when it comes to stress and relationships. It feels really good when you and your partner are on the same page emotionally. There’s nothing like a close emotional bond where each of you can lean on each other through trials and tribulations. While relationship stress might strike every couple at some point, you can choose to soothe each other’s hearts and practice constructive ways to help each other.

Support your partner

When we talk about relationship stress, oftentimes we’re talking about a partnership that is itself causing distress for one or both partners. But what about when you’re dealing with a stressed partner and the imminent impact of external stressors on your partnership? According to a 2012 Florida State University study that examined the role of support in households where daily stress is common to both spouses, not all methods of support lead to positive outcomes. In fact, some reactions can actually make the relationship worse. To help you better understand the most effective ways of helping your partner during stressful times, make sure to be a supportive, empathetic partner that is tuned in to your own emotions. 

Show compassion

When your partner is undergoing stress, he or she may become aloof or agitated and may withdraw emotionally or even physically. This can leave you feeling lonely and vulnerable like you’re alone or unappreciated in your relationship. Your instinct in this situation may be to withdraw as well and to treat your partner the way they are treating you. This will not solve anything; you’re reacting instead of thinking and punishing your partner instead of supporting them. This only erodes trust and exacerbates your relationship stress, particularly if it’s a behavior you engage in often.

Rather than giving in to the desire to “let them see how it feels” and adding to the negative tension within the relationship, take a step back and show some compassion – not just for your partner, but for yourself. By tending to your own needs during times of relationship stress, you will be stronger, more secure and better equipped to be the anchor that your partner (and your relationship) needs.

Open the lines of communication amid relationship stress

Many people have the tendency to draw inward when they are feeling anxious or upset, including when they deal with feelings of isolation caused by relationship stress. According to Sheryl Paul, M.A., “They may have learned early in life that their needs won’t be met, so they eventually learn to stop asking for what they need. This is where being in an intimate relationship can be profoundly powerful for healing old wounds.”

Communication is a powerful tool for handling stress and relationships. Paul suggests that if you see that your partner has retreated, you should make the effort to approach them and say something like, “You seem like you’re having a hard time. How can I help you right now?” This will open the lines of communication and let your partner know that they can depend on you for support.

During times of stress, our partners want to feel supported without inciting emotion from our side. This can be especially difficult if you have added to their stress. Listening without judgment or immediate reaction will require a tremendous amount of patience, kindness and compassion on your end, but will ultimately help you and your partner develop a more positive way to move forward and build a stronger, healthier relationship.

Get talking

One of the best ways to deal with relationship stress is to talk things out. Your words can have power if you use them to understand how your partner is feeling and get a sense of where their emotional state is. Don’t assume you understand how they are feeling. Instead, choose to talk as partners and listen as much as you speak. You might be surprised how much you learn about your partner and how quickly you can work toward a solution together.

Listen beyond the words

Relationship stress usually reaches its peak when one partner doesn’t feel like the other’s listening. Pretending to listen can be a big issue when it comes to talking about stress and relationships. When talking with your partner, aim to pick up on their body language. Recognizing these verbal cues can help your partner feel like their words are appreciated and respected. Remember, understanding how to deal with stress in a relationship often comes down to a sense you care about what your partner is saying and feeling.

Choose your words carefully

Relationship stress can rear its head through angry words and terse emotions. Instead of succumbing to raw feelings, aim to let your partner say their thoughts without any sort of judgment on your end. Accusations, grand exaggerations or false compliments don’t help and are usually counterproductive to lowering stress levels. Discussions, where you and your partner rush to defend yourself,  aren’t going to help you work through stress as a team.

Deal with relationship stress on your own terms

You’re not going to be much help to your partner if you have trouble managing your own stress. When the daily activities of life keep you busy, stress can quickly mount if you’re not conscious of your own thoughts and feelings. Learning how to relax is one of the most powerful stress management tools you can develop. When you learn to calm yourself and take control of your emotions, you’re able to reduce your relationship stress. Here are some strategies for self-management when it comes to stress and relationships:

Create a calm environment:

Stress usually arises at points where you’re taking on the day with a lack of sleep or adequate nutrition. Rather than trying to power through, aim to slow down and make time for your body. Eliminate electronics before bed to create a peaceful atmosphere where you can rest without any interruption. Before settling down, a warm bath or an enjoyable book can help relax the mind and de-stress from a long day. 

Care for your body:

Your physiology, stress and relationships go hand in hand. While you’re at work, swap out coffee and any other sugary drinks for natural juices or water. A hydrated body is one that’s better equipped to cope with stress.

Prioritize relaxation:

A key aspect in handling relationship stress is self-relaxation. Most believe relaxation is an automatic process that’s like a switch. Tony believes the ability to relax and manage your stress levels is a skill that can be harnessed through breathing techniques and other natural remedies.

Learning how to handle stress and relationships is a key skill to master in creating the fulfilling life you deserve. Find out what’s causing you to react the way you do with Tony Robbins’ quick assessment to discover your driving force

Header Image©wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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