Keeping Stress from Undermining Your Marriage
Marital problems become magnified when the partners take their personal stresses out on each other. The resulting problems can get so complicated that they become very difficult to unravel.
Your spouse is a handy scapegoat for stress-related problems that really have nothing to do with him or her. Still, your partner is often the most available (and least risky) target. It's only a matter of time until your spouse will retaliate by directing his or her stress-related anger and frustration right back at you.
You can avoid this vicious cycle by taking the following steps:
- Take time to decompress. After a stressful day at work, many people need time alone to decompress before they're ready to talk. One spouse has had a horrible day at the office and a rough commute. The other's been stuck at home all day with two sick kids. A 15-minute period of calming down, reading the paper or looking at TV, may be necessary before any meaningful conversation can begin. Of course, the less-stressed partner must take over so that the more-stressed one can reconstitute.
- Allow each other time to gripe. Psychologist John Gottman recommends a daily "sanctioned whining session," where "each person gets to complain about any catastrophes that occurred, while the other is understanding and supportive."
- Find out what's upsetting your partner. Now it's time to talk about the details of your day — your successes and your disappointments. If your feelings are out in the open, you'll be less likely to vent your frustrations on each other.
- Talk to your partner about what's been troubling you, and encourage your spouse to do the same. You can help each other by listening attentively and figuring out how you can be supportive. The best way to do this is to ask your partner what he or she needs — not to try to read that other person's mind.
- Your spouse isn't a mind reader. Don't assume that you know what he or she is feeling. It's up to you to make your feelings known and to recruit him or her as an ally to combat the real cause of your stress. This is a process that takes time and careful listening.
- When married partners become obsessed with their own stressors and don't communicate with each other, the very foundation of the relationship begins to crumble.
- Recognize the different ways that you and your partner deal with stress. Some people keep their stresses hidden — often even from themselves. Other people complain loudly when they're under pressure. It's important to understand the differences in how you and your partner handle stress, and not get competitive about whose way is better.
- Don't take it personally. Try not to take it as a personal attack when your spouse is grumpy or preoccupied when under stress — as long as these mood shifts aren't too frequent or severe. On the other hand, if he or she seems irritable all the time, you may need to come up with some specific help. It's not supportive just to listen quietly if your partner is always stressed out. Then you're dealing with a chronic condition, not just with a time-limited acute crisis.
- Ask each other for what you need. Husbands and wives require different things from each other when they're stressed. Your partner may want to talk about what's on his mind, or she may want to take a walk or cuddle up in bed. Other times, your partner may prefer to be left alone.
- The more direct and specific you are about what you need, the more likely your husband or wife will be able to respond. Men seem to have an especially hard time asking for support. Some men (and women) fear that such requests are interpreted as signs of weakness. It's important to trust your partner enough to say, "I'm having a really hard time and I feel overwhelmed. What I need from you is . . . [state specifically what you actually need]."
- Forgive yourself and your partner. A lot of marital stress is caused by relatively small incidents. Some couples have major fights after they discovered that one of them forgot a piece of luggage at an airport on their way to a Caribbean vacation. Next thing you know, a two-week vacation was ruined.
- Assigning blame never helps a marriage. In the end, it really doesn't matter who is at fault. What's most important is that married partners don't allow the good feelings between them to be destroyed by finger pointing.
- Don't expect perfection — from your partner or yourself. Perfectionism almost always ends up creating unnecessary stress because it's impossible to achieve.
- There's no such thing as the perfect spouse or the perfect parent. It's also self-defeating to expect a trip — or even an evening out — to come off without a hitch. Something can always go wrong — even though it's usually inconsequential.
- Find ways to take care of your partner — and yourself. Take turns massaging each other. Take a hot bath together. Go out for a special dinner. Buy tickets to a show or concert you've both wanted to see. Be thoughtful and creative when you select the kind of special care that most effectively addresses your situation.
- Change the scenery. Planning some time away from your normal routine can help both of you relax and approach your stressors more productively.
- You don't have to go on a lengthy or exotic vacation. One night in a hotel in the country — or even across town — can recharge both your batteries and give you a fresh perspective.