How do you deal with stress in your relationship?
By Kira M. Newman (greatergood.berkeley.edu) – When conflicts arise in a relationship, it’s easy to blame our partner. How could he say such a thing to me? Does she really think I have time to run an errand during work? Why didn’t he call to check in?But the slights, annoyances, and forgetfulness that seem clearly blameworthy might be more complicated; in effect, it might be the stress talking—theirs or ours.
According to the American Institute of Stress, more than a quarter of people surveyed in 2014 felt alienated from a friend or family member because of stress, and over half had fought with people close to them. It makes you wonder: How many more of us don’t realize stress is causing our relationship troubles? Research suggests that stress can indeed drive a wedge into romantic relationships—but understanding how this happens may help couples find a way back together.
How stress impacts relationships
A 2015 study corroborated what those survey respondents believe: Relationships are worse off when people are under stress. Researchers surveyed over 100 heterosexual couples in Switzerland about their stress over the past year, and found that external stress—conflicts with friends, financial problems, long work hours—bled over into their relationships. The more daily hassles participants’ experienced outside the home, the more stress they had in their relationship and the less satisfied they felt with it. Women’s external stress was particularly detrimental, linked not only to their own relationship stress and dissatisfaction but to men’s as well.
How exactly does stress get under the skin of a relationship? One way is when a stressed partner fails to get the support she needs, and thus feels isolated or ignored. If both partners are stressed—as is so often the case when modern couples juggle work schedules and parenthood—this is even more likely to happen.
In a 2015 study of nearly 200 heterosexual couples in Switzerland, stressed partners received less support when their partner was also stressed. Researchers videotaped an eight-minute conversation between each couple after one or both partners had gone through a grueling ordeal—math and public speaking in front of Simon Cowell-esque critics—and noted how much time each partner spent supporting the other. Compared to when they were calm, stressed men and women provided less support: fewer hugs, kind words, and empathic responses. (For men, this breakdown occurred specifically when their stressed partner expressed lots of emotion.)
Thomas Bradbury, one of the study’s coauthors, explains what’s going on with an anecdote. Imagine that he and his wife have both come home from stressful days, he says, and he forgot to run an errand for the family. “She might change her tone with me a bit—amplify her feelings, accuse me of not caring about her and how her day was, of not doing my fair share, and so on. This study shows that this combination—two stressed partners, a female partner engaging the male in [emotional] ways—might be…
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