A loving and secure relationship can do a lot for our mental health. It can give us a sense of belonging, enhance our emotional well being, help create structure, and provide the grounding to take risks and build a future. Even in times of personal setbacks, work stress, family drama, which inevitably play a part in our lives at one time or another, a solid romantic relationship can be a place to vent or recharge. But when the outside stress we feel is piled on, or becomes overwhelming, it can take a toll on even our strongest bonds. Knowing how to cope with stress, knowing how to ask for help, and knowing how your partner communicates and reacts to stressors can keep unavoidable hardships from reeking havoc on our marriages and long term relationships.
How Does Stress Impact Relationships?
Couples are as diverse as individual people and the ways in which a couple manages stress is no different. The means by which we give or respond to comfort can play out in a myriad of ways. However, too much stress can drive a wedge into any relationship and its negative impacts makes any couple vulnerable.
As humans we are wired for connection. While a healthy relationship increases our levels of happiness, a strained relationship can disrupt sleep, lower our immune system, and raise blood pressure. On days when individuals reported feeling particularly stressed, they felt their relationship quality had worsened. Put simply, higher levels of stress correlated to lower levels of relationship satisfaction. When serious strain in other areas of our lives carries over into our relationships it creates adverse effects because our emotions with our partners are intrinsically linked. This is caused by the limbic system in our brain that responds to pleasure and rewards.
A loving supportive relationship activates the limbic system causing causing both a positive response emotionally and in the body. Being in conflict with your partner, or being under stress and not receiving adequate support operates in the same way and triggers negative signaling in the brain leading to physical and mental unrest. The problem surmounts of course when both people in the couple are under stress. Since stress increases both partners' needs for support while also making it less likely that either partner will receive it.
In one study on how supportive partners can be under stressful conditions, several couples were put under a stress test. When the exercises were over, the scientists observed the couples for physical and verbal cues of support. Results of the test reveal that when one partner was stressed and the other calm, the neutral partner in each case generally offered the same level of support. But when both partners were stressed, neither were given necessary support. What is probably most revealing, was that the stressed partner was supported less when they responded too emotionally. Given this information, the scientists concluded that the way a partner communicates their stress will affect how much support they receive. The more negative the emotions the stressed partner emits, the less support they tended to elicit from their partner. Ultimately the conclusion was stress can cause conflict in a relationship because it is a challenge to regulate other people’s emotional distress while managing stresses of their own.
So how then can we effectively offer support to a stressed partner? And how can we recognize how we communicate stress so as not to let negative feelings linger and seep in our relationships?
Ways To Be Supportive
While every person and every couple is different, experts agree that being available and empathetic while your partner is under stress helps neutralize negative feelings. Responding empathetically when a partner brings up stressful topics not only helps alleviate that stress, but can even have positive effects on reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. Empathetic behaviors can include nonverbal communications, like head nodding and leaning in to one another. PhD and psychologist for Williamsburg Therapy Group, Chuck Burton reminds us that, “Oftentimes we're guilty of assuming we can fix our partner's problems ourselves and try to immediately jump into action- sometimes they only want (and need) to talk.” Avoid offering solutions or tell someone what to do, instead ask how you can be involved in the process of improving their situation. When we are stressed, often we are not even seeking advice, but rather the need to be heard.
Letting your partner vent is a way to build safety and security in your relationship. If your partner feels like they can tell you about what's bothering them, then they can more quickly move away from that burden. Likewise, feeling like you have a nurturing sounding board brings peace and happiness to the stressed partner that can quickly dissipate negative feelings. Listening and being supported are proven to be better than giving advice or solutions to a stressed partner. Both being heard and feeling supported by your partner leads to less misunderstanding and conflict and a more harmonious relationship in general.
The best way to demonstrate listening to your partner is through Active listening. Giving space to a stressed partner may only require that you be silent and allow your partner to talk through, and express frustrations. Show your solidarity by being engaged with what they are saying, keeping eye contact, giving your focus and attention to them while they vent. Being genuine in your interest as well as validating their emotions by empathizing with them and taking their side.
A more proactive way to empathize with your partner is to be flexible in your roles. Even if you don’t usually take out the garbage or pack lunch for the kids, stepping in to fill a roll shows support and service to your partner during a stressful interval.
Although there are times when we need to be on the receiving end of service and support, it is important to be mindful of how your stress affects your partner. If you have a tendency to withdraw, or over vent, or linger too long on a subject, examine how you communicate your emotions so you don’t risk saturating your partner in stress as well. In certain cases, even if you are the one going through the hardship, if you are taxing your partner to the point that they feel defeated or stressed themselves, then taking your issues to a professional might be the right next step.
When things get unmanageable for you both, it's a good idea not to ask too much of the person you love to provide everything for you emotionally. If your stress or parenters stress is negatively affecting the relationship, finding professional outside help can bring back that balance. A professional can offer ways to self regulate your own emotions as well as offer personalized exercises to communicate your best during rough periods. Dr. Chuck Burton, psychologist at Williamsburg Therapy Group, says “Therapy can add a fresh perspective on where a couple's individual and joint-strategies for handling stress aren't working, and experiment with new ways of managing both separately and together. Stress has a way of eroding routes of communication between couples- therapy can also help opening them back up.”
And finally, ask for support. If there is a need that is not being met, and a hug, an extra hand, or changing a plan that temporarily accommodates a packed schedule will be helpful, ask for those concessions. For the unstressed partner, being able to respond with care is a way to show love and strengthen bonds.
Even in healthy and balanced relationships, there are moments of stress. New challenges will inevitably arise. Likewise, understanding the ways your partner communicates, how they handle stress and ask for support they need are all part of a normal, thriving, and ever expanding relationship. Find ways in any conflict to be empathetic, be present, flexible, and kind will signal communion and support. Through the process of learning your partner's needs and your own in stressful situations, will consciously make a stronger bond that much stronger.