Couples' Stress

Hilary Smith

Hilary Smith is a writer with Relationship Services and an experienced counsellor. www.relate.org.nz

So you're having a serious bad hair day.

You look to your partner for sympathy and find they're even closer to losing it than you are. It feels totally unfair. Here you are, frazzled and at the end of your tether. You crave a bit of cosseting, and the person you count on for comfort is in a worse state than you.

Rome visit, June 2008 - 57

Sometimes stress conveniently afflicts us one at a time. But often our stress coincides. We can let our mutual stress wind us up and choose to snap and snarl at each other. Or we can help each other manage the stress. It's a dilemma couples face all the time. Whose stress gets attention first? Who takes the initiative and offers some soothing to their partner?

It is one of the times when a real depth of goodwill is needed in a relationship. You've got to be able to trust that you are both doing the best you can, and that your partner isn't deliberately getting stressed-out just to avoid giving you support. You need confidence that both of you will come to the party. So if one of you takes a deep breath and offers to cook dinner while the other relaxes, the other needs to appreciate the effort made. They need to make good use of the opportunity and let go a bit of their tension. They need to think about offering some care to their partner. The better you know each other, the more helpful you are able to be.

If you know the kind of situations that stress your partner, you can sometimes anticipate when particular care will be needed. Sick children, job interviews, deadlines at work would be some likely examples. Its about being conscious of the triggers that affect you and your partner. If you struggle in the morning, your partner may learn to be more tolerant of your moods before breakfast. If your partner gets tense about money you approach financial discussions gently. You can plan for some situations together. When you know things like long hours, or fraught meetings are coming up, you can decide in advance how to manage the tensions you are likely to experience. Reorganize how you share the dreary practical tasks and the opportunities to put your feet up. If times are going to be tough for both of you, perhaps you could prepare some meals in advance, or maybe you could just decide to dial pizza.

When partners manage each other's stress, a lot of what we do is take on practical tasks. But its not limited to this. Its about approaching your grumpy, hassled partner with a generous spirit. They won't relax if they feel that you resent doing the dishes or listening to them rant. Sometimes you need to hold back and recognise that crabby comments are about them and how bad they are feeling, not about you. You might not accept behaviour like that ordinarily, but moments of high stress are not the time to make a point. It's hard to stay calm and to soothe your cranky partner when you're stressed. But life gets rapidly harder if you join your partner in their unhappiness. A little bit of empathy can go a long way.

 
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  • Wice says
    The theory is splendid but I’m not sure about the reality. I have been trying to train hubbie for as long as I know to develop his empathy.

    I don’t want sympathy when I am down, upset, frustrated or angry – that would probably just make me feel defeated. What I would like him to do, is to acknowledge how I feel and ask if there is any way he can help me to feel better.

    Despite explaining this to him so many times, what happens instead, is that he normally just gets down, upset, frustrated or angry himself. “Something’s gotta give” they say, which is precisely what happens. The result - our roles become reversed. I have to pull myself out of my state and get on with life. In his own way, he has made me feel better by taking responsibility for myself.

    When hubbie is the instigator in the down, upset, frustrated or angry mood, he would rather push me away than have me hug him or offer my support – those very behaviours I would love to get from him. Instead, he wants to be left alone to sort out whatever is bothering him. The more I try to help, the worse his mood becomes. I have learned that the only solution is to pretend nothing is wrong and carry on as usual until he works his way though whatever is bothering him.

    It’s a strange solution and not the greatest from my point of view, but it does work for us. I’m convinced I will never change hubbies behaviour, which mimics his Dads, and I believe that this sort of strategy may be learned in childhood and becomes incorporated into coping behaviours at an early age. Survival is being able to adapt to situations effectively and in the end, we can only take responsibility for how we behave ourselves.
  • flowery3 says
    Very good points Wice. Guys certainly are different in how they see problems. My guy has a problem solving approach - he wants to know just what the problem is, so he can find a fix for it, or get me to do the same. Hes not so great with non-specific just feeling a bit down type moments, where I just want him to be there, rather than fix something for me! Im learning to like that though - if there's a problem, dont mope about it, fix it!
  • flowery3 says
    I just got him the perfect T shirt for his fixit mentality from grab one - no 8 wire!
  • Wice says
    Made me smile....

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