Communicating During Stressful Times
Topics Discussed in this Video:
- The Nature of Stress
- Stress and Relationships
- Types of Stress
- Dealing with Stress
- Recognizing Stress
- Handling Conflict
- The Six Pivots
Dr. Nathan Hardy describes the ways stress impacts communication between romantic partners, along with simple strategies to work through stress together as partners and enrich relationships.
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Stress and Relationships
Stress, which you could also call a feeling of emotional or physical tension, can be hard on relationships in various ways. This includes influencing couples to communicate less positively, have more arguments, and leading to fewer and less satisfying sexual interactions. Stress is also shared in relationships. When one person feels increased stress their partner experiences the stress as well, especially through the effect that the stress has on how we communicate. Just as stress is experienced by both individuals in a relationship, it can also be dealt with together.
Steps to Dealing with Stress Together
One useful strategy for dealing with stress together involves following four steps; becoming aware, opening up, listening with interest, and providing support. This approach comes from the couples coping enhancement training developed by Bodenmann and Shantinath. If you become aware of your partner’s stress and ask them to open up, you listen with interest and provide meaningful support. If you become aware of your own stress and open up about it, you ask your partner to listen and offer support. As you follow these steps you and your partner become a team in managing the stress that you both experience.
Step 1: Become Aware
To begin, look for cues that let you know that your partner (or cues that you yourself) are experiencing stress. These include the words used – such as I’m feeling stressed, worried, down, overwhelmed, and so on – as well as the tone of voice and nonverbal cues (heartrate, posture, expressions, and so on). When you pick up on a cue that points to increased stress, in you or your partner, warmly ask “what’s going on?”
Step 2: Open Up
Next comes opening up about the experience with the stress. This involves more than telling the story about what situation we are feeling stress about. More important here is talking about our thoughts and feelings about the stressful situation and why or how it personally affects you.
Step 3: Listen with Interest
While one person is opening up, their partner listens with support. This means giving plenty of time for them to describe their experience without rushing to try and fix the problem, trying to challenge their thoughts or emotions, or trying to change them. If you do ask questions keep them open-ended and with the goal of increasing your understanding of their experience.
Step 4: Provide Support
Finally, provide support. Usually, the most important support is emotional support involving empathy, encouragement, and reassurance that you are there with them in their difficulty. Afterwards, and only if it is requested, comes practical support in the form of advice, problem-solving, and providing more information.
While relationships with our significant other can be among our most meaningful sources of support, they can also be a source of stress. One way to reduce how often our relationships add to our stress and increase the times that they are a source of support is to enrich them. John Gottman has identified useful strategies to enrich relationships, including ways to maximize positivity in our relationships and reduce negativity during conflict. Every couple has times of conflict and challenges, those who have more positive interactions during their conflict and who enrich their relationships at other times tend to have more stable and satisfying relationships.
- After having a fight rather than sweeping it under the proverbial rug, take some time to talk about the fight while trying to understand your partner, express acceptance to them, and apologize for ways you contributed to negativity during the conflict.
- Watch out for and work to reduce the “four horsemen” of communication patterns that often come along before relationships break apart. These “four horsemen” to watch out for include criticizing your partner’s character or personality, retaliating when your partner criticizes you (called defensiveness), ignoring or blowing off your partner during a conflict (called stonewalling), or showing contempt for your partner.
- Start interactions that might become contentious with a soft tone and soft words and work to have 5 positive statements or gestures to every 1 negative one during conflict.
- During everyday interactions, search for and create moments of connection.
- Find and regularly do activities that you both enjoy together.
- Work to regularly notice and respond to your partners attempts to engage with you.
- Create routines that involve moments of connection with your partner.
- Talk about and support one another’s roles at work, home, or community and try to understand and support one another’s dreams.
- Bodenmann, G., & Shantinath, S. D. (2004). The Couples Coping Enhancement Training (CCET): A new approach to prevention of marital distress based upon stress and coping. Family relations, 53(5), 477-484.
Falconier, M. K., Randall, A. K., & Bodenmann, G. (Eds.). (2016). Couples coping with stress: A cross-cultural perspective. Routledge.
Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work: A practical guide from the country's foremost relationship expert. Harmony.