How can we inoculate our relationship against stress?

The effects of stress on individuals is well known to many of us - in the short-term, we can feel tired, more irritated and grumpy than usual, perhaps it becomes harder to eat and sleep well. We may become more vulnerable to indulging in activities that ease stress in the short-term but create other problems down the track - eating to excess, drinking alcohol, taking drugs. In the longer-term, prolonged stress can negatively affect our physical, emotional and mental health. We might become run down, our bodies may be less efficient at fighting off illness. Because we feel tired all the time, our mood becomes more negative, we may lose motivation to to the things that will help us stay healthy and feel better, such as exercise, self-care activities, time with loved ones.

What we don't perhaps think so much about is the impact our failure to manage stress may be having on those closest to us. If I'm chronically tired, I might have less capacity to really tune into my partner and keep in touch with what's going on for them. If I'm irritable, my partner may start to feel that our interactions are becoming less rewarding. At an extreme, s/he may even feel that there's something not right in the relationship, and interpret my stress as a symptom of deeper problems between us. If I deal with my stress by drinking or using drugs, I may start to behave in ways that cause my partner to be scared of me, or feel that s/he can't trust me when I behave in unexpected, unpredictable or even violent ways. If I cope with stress by either withdrawing into myself, or becoming demanding of my partner's energy and time in ways that don't keep their needs in mind, this can cause serious problems in how we communicate and work through the conflicts and disagreements of everyday life.

The good news is, though, that stress does not have to have a negative effect on our relationships. So what are the keys towards inoculating our relationship? 

First, it's important to get extra support. Relationships suffer when we need more from each other than the relationship is able to accommodate. Draw on support from family, friends, and of course professionally. This may include counselling (where you may find it beneficial to talk about the situation that is causing you stress and have guidance in working through what action you may need to take in reponse to it, or where the situation cannot easily be changed, learn different perspectives, ways of thinking and approaching the situation that can help you stay relaxed, grounded and strong). It may also involve hiring a personal trainer, taking up an activity where you are supported to develop healthy ways of managing stress (this may involve exercise, a hobby, a creative outlet or more specific relaxation skills training such as yoga or meditation).

If you are the 'non-stressed' person being negatively affected by your partner's stress, get your own support too. You may need to draw on a separate person (or people) to meet your needs for nurturance and social connection, at least for a short time, while your partner is unable to provide this. Of course, this should not go on indefinitely, but can be a great circuit-breaker for relationships during hard times.

Next, actively cultivate stress-reduction techniques together. These may include exercising together, giving and receiving a massage, doing something fun together. 

Finally, the same prinnciples that foster healthy relationships more generally can also reduce individual and relationship stress. Actively cultivate fondness and admiration (and rate your stress levels before and after both giving and receiving these types of comments to your partner!), let your partner know what you need from them in order to be able to reduce your own stress (this is different from asking your partner to manage your stress for you), and allow your partner to do the same.

When we become skilled enough at inoculating our relationship against stress, we can still embrace opportunities for growth and change (which can, at least in the short term, be extremely stressful, but may reap rich rewards in the longer-term). What's most important is that our relationships are not the casualty.

Till next post, Vivienne

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