Exposing relationship stress vs. life stress


When a client tells me about relationship stress with their partner, a funny thing can happen.

At first, they are clearly distressed as they describe the arguments they have had over the past week. They feel furious and hurt.

They tell me of the verbal attacks they have copped, the silent treatment they have been subjected to, and the slamming of doors they have put up with.

They often speak of their partner’s ignorance of their suffering.

And yet, further along in our discussion, a surprising shift can occur.

Relationship stress subsides, and another is revealed

Distress melts away. A clearer, calmer reality emerges.

I can actually see their relief. And it is as if I can see part of their brain come back online. They begin to explain matters with more objectivity.

Of course, this is not me weaving some therapy magic. My only intervention so far is to listen, ask the odd clarifying question, and perhaps offer a reflection now and again, which lets them know that I understand what they are saying.

What has happened is that they have vented (with no retaliation from me). They have felt heard and understood (with no excuses or ‘fix-its’ from me). And so their stress levels drop.

And this is where the funny bit commonly occurs. They begin to defend their partner.

“Look…she did give me a hard time, but she is under enormous pressure at work right now.” Or, “I should say…he’s really having a tough time of it, with his mum being so ill”.

It is not that they are excusing their partner’s poor behaviour. Importantly, however, they are flagging the role of stress – the cause of which is external to their relationship.

So stress can really be a double whammy for couples. It can wield power from outside the relationship and cause havoc from within.

Is life stress causing relationship stress?

The evil power of stress – part I

It may turn out, then, that stress is your enemy, but your partner is not.

Consider one of my clients in a therapy session, as described above. His stress levels are sky-high. He feels furious and hurt.

But in the end, his distress dissipates. He recovers and emerges from ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode to a more grounded state where he is able to see the bigger picture with clarity.

Imagine a different scene – where he is at home confronting his partner, each of them full of anger, upset, and other emotions. Stress escalates and fuels combat.

Nobody is in a position to listen effectively or think clearly at this stage. (This is when smart couples call a cease-fire and suspend the argument until everyone calms down.)

Stress is what makes us lose it. It is the difference between an upsetting argument and an ugly episode of personal attacks, name-calling, and aggression. It goes without saying that it is a destructive element in relationships.

We know that we were hijacked by stress when we felt sheepish and regretful the next morning. We wish we had not said those awful things. We cannot even remember how the argument started.

Of course, not in all cases, but often we ought to point the finger at life stress, not our partner.

The evil power of stress – part II

Now thinking bigger picture, how would you rate your relationship if, by magic…neither of you was under financial or family strain, workplace or time pressure, or dealing with sleep deprivation or uncertainty about the future?

Or, from another angle, do you experience relationship stress when you go on holiday? (A relaxing holiday not requiring driving in foreign cities or other stress-inducing activities.) How is it when you have escaped from the challenges of real life?

Presumably a lot better.

Life stress vs. relationship stress does not answer or solve all of our relationship woes. Removing stress does not necessarily remove communication problems or dysfunctional relationship dynamics. It does not stop your partner from pushing your buttons. However, stress can push an otherwise-ok relationship to the brink and beyond.

How to turn stress into a relationship lifeline

In fact, there is little point in imagining life without stress. What is that expression about there being only two certainties in life…death and taxes? I would add stress to the list.

And while you might not welcome stress in your life, identifying its role in the life you share together can be a real relationship saviour…

It can represent a common enemy. Rather than attacking one another, perhaps you can work together to address the causes of stress in your lives. “Stress is tearing us apart right now” can be a good opener for a productive discussion.

Along similar lines, it can provide a focal point for positive change. Improving relationship dynamics and communication often takes time, insight, and great effort. Identifying small, tangible ways to reduce stress – more exercise, less alcohol, and caffeine, a better diet, more sleep – can bring immediate improvement to how you both feel. This can pave the way for positive change in your relationship.

Do pause and wonder about the impact of stress on your relationship. Doing so is not a panacea, but it can be a really effective start. You might not leap straight into defending your partner after your next argument, but you may feel a little more forgiving of them.

This blog was originally published on the website of Clinton Power & Associates