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Stress and Relationships
We generally tend to be unaware that all those major and apparently unimportant everyday stress experiences cumulatively have an impact on us and that includes an impact on our relationship: A strenuous, time consuming day at work, demanding children, the partner’s varying needs and sensitivities, hassles with the colleagues and/or the relatives plus all those small annoyances like the washing machine giving out, a missed appointment, noisy neighbors, a traffic jam on the way home, the lost wallet ...
Innumerable researchers study the consequences of stress on our quality of life. One of them is Dr. Guy Bodenmann at Freiburg University who concentrated on the subject of stress and partnership. His conclusion: Couples who are subjected to a lot of stress in their everyday life and who have developed adverse ways of coping, report a significantly reduced level of satisfaction with their partnership and an increased risk of separation and divorce. On the other hand, couples that have to deal with lots of stress but also can cope, display considerably more stable relationship trends. (It goes without saying that couples with the least amount of stress in their lives are way ahead of the game – but then one does not always have a choice . . .)
It also goes without saying that those who do have to live with lots of stress have less time for the partner who then tends to feel neglected as the result. Relaxed times together when one can distance oneself from pre-occupations and emotionally concentrate on each other then become a rarity. Communication among the partners deteriorates – one or both are frequently irritable, are more generous with criticism than praise, arguments tend to develop more quickly and often get more intense than is the case under “normal circumstances”. Each partner expects empathy and indulgence from the other while he or she is not (any longer) willing or capable of it him/herself.
Bodenmann writes: “Research demonstrates that the quality of communication under stress declines by half. Couples under stress are distinctly less positive when dealing with each other (less compliments, praise, approval etc.) and instead tend to react with negative commentary (criticism, depreciation etc.).“ While under stress we also have a difficult time to control or hide the less pleasant and cordial sides of our character (which all of us have): We appear just as timid, stubborn, controlling or selfish as we are and it is up to our partner to cope with it. Last but not least, continuous stress has a negative effect on the health of one or both partners – something that is not likely to improve the situation when we can’t sleep well or practically never feel like having sex!
By the way: It is interesting that the small daily spats and irritations exert the most potent negative influence on the partnership. While truly important stress factors – for instance when a family member dies or a partner falls seriously ill or loses his/her job often tend to bring the partners closer together. On the other hand, the small everyday irritations, bagatelles on their own (she never closes the toothpaste tube or he insists on dropping his socks all over the living room floor), those are considerably more dangerous for the relationship equilibrium; they stick quietly and surreptitiously to it like rust and gradually erode it.
To illustrate, Bodenmann chooses an example you are probably familiar with in a variety of variations: A couple is looking forward to an enjoyable evening at the theater together. On the way to the theater they get stuck in a traffic jam and the man is getting nervous and starts cursing the traffic and life in general. She tries to mollify him but he won’t be placated and now she is getting irritated herself albeit more at his exaggerated reaction than about the traffic jam . . . At one time or the other every couple has probably experienced those or similar situations when they treat each other with a lack of empathy and irritation rather than with understanding and support. After all, there must be more important things in life than being on time for a theater performance, or?!
The difference in the partners’ personalities can obviously also be a possible cause for these conflicts. After all, stress is not an objective but a subjective occurrence. Whether an event is perceived as stressful or not, is not so much due to the event itself but to the perception of the event by the person subjected to it. A simple example: As a child my girl friend was bitten by a dog and since then she is terrified of dogs that are larger than a guinea pig. Fortunately, I did not have a similar experience with dogs and am very fond of them, the larger the better. When both of us would happen to walk along the same road and encounter the same large black dog coming towards us off the leash, each one of us would probably experience two totally different emotions. She would probably break into a sweat, panic-stricken look for a way out and retreat to the other side of the road while I would get into a crouch, extend my hand and be happy if the dog would sniff it and let me scratch his ear. All of this despite the fact that the situation, the potential stressor is identical. Stress is created in one‘s head. According to Seneca: “It is not things that disturb us but the way their significance is interpreted.” For a person for whom being on time is very important and who would be embarrassed to be late and potentially disturb other theater goers the event described above could indeed represent an immense stressor – while someone else, rather unconventional and not really that much interested in the opinion of others could not have cared less.
Bodenmann presents a number of very practical suggestions how couples can deal with this everyday stress more constructively and better protect their relationship from the rust of minor adversities – as I go along I plan to continue introducing some of them to you. For now I would like to emphasize the “Golden Rule” in partnership matters: Tolerance, Emphasis and Support - possibly and especially in situations when as far as you are concerned your partner reacts to the next stress situation totally over the top. Don’t look at it through the “dark” glasses (the impossible person he/she is, with all those shortcomings and weaknesses, and how you could ever fall in love with someone like that . . . ) but try it through the “white” glasses (he/she had a tough day, after all he he/she is rather conservative and hates to be late, something you surely appreciate under different circumstances, now he/she feels particularly helpless and is afraid that both of you miss the beautiful performance you had looked forward to . . .). Maybe you are familiar with the charming saying: “Love me most of all when I deserve it least of all because then I need it more than ever!” How true, how true ...
This requires practice and doesn’t always work. But it does change the perspective vis-à-vis the partner if one tries not to always see him/her as an accumulation of negatives and mistakes but tries to understand and appreciate him/her as a person with his/her very own unique attributes and thoughts. And since there can probably never be too much of this “anti-rust-balsam” in any partnership, in closing please find three suggestions how you can develop a little positive countercurrent to everyday stress if you are so inclined! It is fun and sometimes actually has surprising results – try it!
- Create a list (just for yourself and without showing it to your partner) of 10 things you especially love about him/her. Every morning during the next four weeks while you are brushing your teeth flip a coin. If it comes up “head during that day deliberately compliment your partner with regard to one of the items on your list.
- Create a “Partner Happiness Diary” and at the end of each day enter at least one small detail (it is quite alright if there are more than one) you particularly appreciated about your partner on that day, something he/she did, something that you enjoyed or that made you proud or something that demonstrated his/her appreciation of you.
- Each day during the next three months do something, anything for your partner that you believe he/she is going to enjoy – without talking about it, without asking him/her if you did the right thing and without expecting a specific reaction from him/her.
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This article was written by psychologist and book author Felicitas Heyne. She is the developer of the iPersonic personality test. Take the free personality test now and get in-depth career advice and life coaching from our unique iPersonic personality profiles!Similar articles in this blog:
- Stress and Relationships Part 2
- The Effects of Ex-Partners on New Relationships
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- Can Relationships with Major Age Differences work?