This article looks at stress and relationships and how finding the right communication style when it comes to tackling difficult subjects can make our relationships much stronger. Modern lives can be stressful enough without also having arguments and unhappiness in our closest relationships. Worries about money and work situations, health and child rearing issues, even working out who will do what around the house, need to be addressed and how a couple talks over these stressful problems either reduces or magnifies the tensions caused by the initial problem.
We know that the obvious answer is to talk about it. The problem can often be how to find the right time and the right way to talk about it. People often stay silent when something is stressful for them in their relationship, which seems to be the safe route. But allowing a situation to continue and refraining from speaking up, diminishes a sense of personal power in a relationship and will allow the stress to build up more.
On the other hand getting emotionally worked up, particularly in anger, can switch the tone from friendly to adversarial in an instant. Anger quickly undermines feelings that the relationship is a safe and supportive one. It can be useful for both members of a couple to agree in advance that if either start to become emotionally aroused during a discussion– either angry or very upset – that both have a period of “time-out” in order to calm down, before resuming the discussion.
Communication, stress and relationships
We tend to assume that if we don’t naturally have good communication skills as a couple then we are doomed – but actually negotiating skills just need a little practice. Dr John Gottman, famous for his work on marital stability, identified 4 distinct styles of communication which are likely to lead to relationship breakdown after observing many thousands of couples:
When we criticise someone, we are implying that there is something wrong with them. So for example using the words: “You always” or “you never” are common ways to criticise. (As in “you never given me a hand with putting the kids to bed” or “you always drive too fast”. ) Your partner is most likely to feel under attack and to respond defensively. This is a dangerous pattern to get into because neither person feels heard and both may begin to feel bad about themselves in the presence of the other. The antidote to criticism is to make a direct complaint that is not a global attack on your partner’s personality.
This means ether attempting to defend yourself from a perceived attack with a counter complaint or retreating into a “victim” role and whining or getting tearful. It keeps partners from taking responsibility for problems and escalates negative communication. The antidote to defensiveness is to try to hear your partner’s complaint, take some responsibility for the problem and try to move forward together with it.
Contempt can be both verbal and nonverbal and includes mocking your partner, name calling, or rolling your eyes and sneering in disgust. Gottman says that contempt is the most damaging means of communication as it swiftly destroys the fondness and admiration between partners. The antidote to contempt is to actively work on building a culture of appreciation in the relationship. Not easy but if you are both prepared to work at it, it can make communication easier.
Stonewalling is what happens when the listener withdraws from the conversation, either by walking out of the room or by ignoring and shutting down. Research has found that 80% of stonewallers are men and it does not generally mean that they don’t care but rather that they are overwhelmed and are trying to calm themselves. It can turn into a vicious circle with one person demanding to talk and the other looking for escape. The antidote is to learn to identify the signs that you or your partner is starting to feel emotionally overwhelmed and to agree together to take a break. If the problem still needs to be discussed then pick it up when you are calmer.
Stress and relationships: other strategies
It is possible that most of the stress is coming from an external source such as one partner’s difficult work situation. It is important to remember that ultimately, you are each responsible for your own feelings and your own ways of managing your stress. If you blame your partner, other people or the situation, you can get trapped in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. This is unhealthy as you end up wasting energy on things you have no control over, instead of focusing on the things you do. Statistically, money issues account for more relationship problems than any other source. In reality, money is a financial problem but if we are not careful, it then also becomes a relationship problem. Working together as partners is a much more effective way to solve money problems than fighting about it.
Avoiding black and white thinking
The nature of stress is that it can make our thinking patterns a little twisted. If your partner loses their job or their business is struggling, it doesn’t help to conclude catastrophically that you will also lose your home and everything you have worked for. Instead of focusing on the negative possibilities, sit down with your partner and discuss possible solutions. If you work together in a creative way you may be able to turn this challenge into an opportunity.
Respond rather than react
When we just react to bad news, it is likely that our reaction will also include a negative emotional component. By taking time to consider our response, our knee jerk reaction will be softened by our desire to maintain peace and unity in our relationship. A response defers additional stress and allows room for more positive emotions like compassion and understanding.
Be aware of gender differences in relationship stress
The way men and women respond to stress can often be very different. To the man, it might seem like his partner is overreacting and attaching too much emotional significance to the situation. To the woman, it might seem like he is just ignoring the problem and hoping it will go away. Recognising that we all express our concerns and feelings differently makes it easier to honour the feelings and expressions of our partners.
Be allies not enemies
It is important to remind yourself that you are allies in every struggle and challenge. Remind each other that you are there for your partner no matter what. If you make a mistake, being quick to apologise and so demonstrate your commitment to the partnership. Being forgiving has a similar effect. Regularly letting your partner sense how much you value the relationship will help clear away any doubts caused by trying situations.
Get help if you need it.
When things get confusing, don’t be too proud or stubborn to seek qualified help. Sometimes we are so close to a situation that we lose our objectivity. An impartial third party like a counsellor can often see things much more clearly and provide valuable insight at just the right time.
For more information on Coping with stress go to my Stress Counselling Cork page.
Need some more advice and support?
If you are experiencing stress in your relationship and wold like to talk it over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!