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The Role Stress Plays in your Relationship

By: Julia D’Addurno


Most people understand how long-term stress can impact one’s life. Stress has an effect on our bodies, thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. Unchecked stress, especially, can contribute to many health problems, even suppressing our immune systems making us more susceptible to various health issues (Briones and Gould, 2019). It has a major effect on our personal lives too, especially our relationships. Some stressful life events can include grief/loss, caregiver stress, work and school-related stress and all these stressors can interfere with our personal relationships. It’s not just the stress itself that can be troublesome, but the way we respond to such stress, especially in the context of our social relationships.


When an individual is stressed they become more withdrawn, distracted, and their ability to show affection, connect and communicate emotionally, and manage conflict is affected. There is also a possibility that people can become overwhelmed by stress which leaves them with less time to spend with partners. When one partner becomes more withdrawn and begins to emotionally shut out the other from their life it can be detrimental to the relationship. It is not usually done intentionally but sometimes we struggle with managing our stresses and cope by distancing ourselves or by engaging in other behaviours that could be maladaptive.


The best way to avoid this kind of situation is to become aware of and be able to identify our stressors. This way we can learn how to identify when we're stressed and then learn how to manage it. When individuals learn how to cope with stress they can restore and increase their emotional connection, intimacy, and revitalize their romance. This is easier said than done and requires quite a bit of effort.


Although many relationships can deteriorate in the face of hardships and stress, studies show that couples can overcome stress and become stronger. Some negative life events have even predicted relationship improvement (Neff, 2011). This is due to the fact that stressful life events can offer the opportunity for each individual to grow from the hardships they experience therefore improving and strengthening their relationships. This is usually done when healthy coping resources are utilized (Neff, 2011). By finding coping skills and managing stress you will begin to strengthen your resilience. Strengthening your resilience to stress further increases your ability to recover from traumas, loss, and other major or minor stressors. Everyone possesses the capacity for psychological resilience but the degree of strength varies and psychological resilience requires much reinforcement. The stronger our resilience, the better we are able to manage stress. Some people find it helpful to talk to a couples therapist who can help them identify these stressors in and outside of their relationship, and provide them with helpful coping tools. There are also some exercises you can do at home to get you started or explore if you may need some extra guidance from a couples therapist. 


Build and update your love maps:


Stress and trauma can change how a person views themselves and their world. When you or your partner experiences stressful life events it can change your views and perceptions quite significantly. Love Maps are all the details we store about our partners and their likes, dislikes, fears and goals. Dr. Gottman, a relationship expert, expresses that those who frequently communicate with their partners and keep updated love maps are more satisfied in their relationship and are better prepared for life’s adverse stresses (Gottman and Silver, 2015). By engaging in a conversation about how stress is affecting your loved one, you can update your love maps and restore intimacy, becoming closer to your partner. You can learn how to build a lovemap here: https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-sound-relationship-house-build-love-maps/


The Gottman Institute for Couples provides a list of questions to ask each other when you begin to identify stressors and communicate about them to each other. These questions should be shared with each other and open up discussion about how you have been feeling. 


  • In what ways has stress been affecting your emotions?

  • What are you doing that helps you cope with your stress?

  • What ways are you coping with stress that are having a positive effect on your relationship?

  • What ways are you coping with stress that are having a negative effect on your relationship?

  • What actions would like to take to cope with and reduce stress in the future?


It could be a good idea to check in with your partner and talk about how your current stressors may be affecting your relationship, especially in these unprecedented times.


References:


Briones, B. A., & Gould, E. (2019). Adult Neurogenesis and Stress. Stress: Physiology, Biochemistry, and Pathology, 79–92. doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-813146-6.00007-2  


Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. Harmony.


Neff, L. A., & Broady, E. F. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(5), 1050.


Lisitsa, E (n.d). The Sound Relationship House: Build Love Maps. The Gottman Institute. Retreived from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-sound-relationship-house-build-love-maps/

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