How To Keep Showing Up In Your Relationship, Even When You're Super Stressed
The birth of a child, a financial crisis, a looming work deadline. To be a human being means you will sometimes experience stress. It's our common denominator.
Stress is our natural survival response to perceived threats or demands. It signals that something is off-balance in our lives or, as is often the case, our perception of a threat is bigger than the situation calls for. In this distressed state when we need our partner's support the most, we often find ways to push them further away and forget how we're affecting our relationship—often causing additional problems on top of the original stressors.
And so the cycle begins: Our stress causes us to neglect or act out in our relationship, which then makes the relationship itself become tense, which then adds even more stress, and then the loop goes on and on.
Why stress brings out the worst in us.
Stress tends to bring out our worst selves. In this primal state, we become cavemen protecting ourselves from wild animals. Our bodies don't know the difference between a deadline and a deadly tiger! We can feel panicked and become irritable, moody creatures with few resources left over for good communication and thoughtfulness.
In times of distress, it is easy to become self-focused, absorbed by our physical discomfort and the thought spirals that hold us hostage. Research shows1 that in this place, our capacity for empathy is greatly diminished. We lose access to how we are affecting others and, most importantly, how we're affecting our partner.
High levels of stress take our brain's prefrontal cortex offline, hijacking our capacity to think clearly, thereby limiting our ability to problem solve and cope with the stress-inducing situation. It's no surprise that stressed people can sometimes behave like adult-sized toddlers, selfish and unable to manage their emotions. We've all been there.
What stress does to our relationships.
When people are stressed out, their interactions with loved ones tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between avoiding and engaging.
Engagers respond to their stress by frantically seeking reassurance and comfort in ways that make their partner feel overwhelmed and helpless. In response, their partner may get frustrated or withdraw, wishing they could solve the problem but feeling there is nothing they can do to help. In turn, engagers feel alone and misunderstood. You can probably predict how this negative and vicious cycle turns out.
Avoiders respond to stress by withdrawing inward and avoid communicating about their internal experience. They fear burdening their partner and may have learned that they need to manage difficult emotions alone. In their silence, they communicate powerfully. In response to their withdrawal, partners of avoiders are likely to experience similar patterns of helplessness and frustration.
In each case, both partners are left feeling alone and disconnected, amplifying an already stressful situation.
The main reason human beings are often driven to enter into long-term romantic partnerships is to meet our attachment needs for emotional comfort and safety, which protect us from the negative impacts of stress. Maintaining your relationship by showing up for yourself and teaching your partner how to show up for you is essential for coping with life's storms.
How to maintain connection with your partner when you're stressed.
1. Be extra diligent about communicating your needs during this time.
It would be such a relief if our partner could read our mind! But sadly they can't, so you'll need to let them know what's up—always, but especially when you're dealing with a lot of stress in your life right now. It's vulnerable and challenging to express your needs, but it'll pay off in spades in the long run. People want to show up for their partner in difficult moments but usually don't know how, making them feel inept, helpless, and frustrated. Imagine if you could avoid those bad feelings!
Tune into yourself first to see what it is you might be needing during a stressful time. Do you want your partner to just listen, or do you want them to engage in problem-solving with you? Do you want more physical touch like a hug, would you like your partner to make you dinner, or do you just need some extra solo time right now? Be specific about the behavior you need. Then when you're feeling less stressed, find out what your partner might need when they're dealing with stress. The tables will turn at some point.
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2. Touch your partner.
Physical touch releases oxytocin2, the cuddle hormone, which helps calm our nervous systems and promotes well-being. Touch between romantic partners is so powerful it can even provide relief from physical pain. Research has also found links between partners hugging each other, lower blood pressure, and higher oxytocin. For the full hug effect, try a "heart-to-heart hug" by lining up your hearts and holding the hug for a full minute, or try a six-second kiss.
3. Don't put all your eggs in one relational basket.
We need our partners the most during stressful periods, but it's important to recognize that support can also come from others. One critical way to protect your relationship is to lean on friends and family members who you trust with your vulnerability, especially if your partner is also caught in stress.
Pro tip: Seeing a therapist to get through a difficult period is another way to gain support with the added bonus of developing insight and new ways of coping.
4. Keep showing up for yourself.
When stress enters our lives, our distress communicates the need to show up for ourselves in a more compassionate way. In addition to reaching for your partner and support system, that also means finding stress reduction strategies that work for you when you're alone, whether it's meditating, exercising, or just making sure you get enough sleep. Finally, remember that you're not alone with what you're feeling. Everyone experiences stress sometimes, and there are other people in the world who feel the same as you right now.
Simone Humphrey, Psy.D. and Signe Simon, Ph.D. are psychologists and couples therapists in New York City and founders of the relationship education platform LOVELINK.
Humphrey earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Rutgers University and has held clinical positions at Columbia University Medical Center, Veteran Affairs hospitals, and Newark Beth Israel Hospital. Currently, she works in private practice at Therapists of New York, a group practice in midtown Manhattan. She specializes in couples therapy, challenges in self-esteem, and the treatment of trauma, aiming to help people feel confident and authentic with themselves and in their relationships in order to create a more meaningful life.
Simon earned her doctorate in counseling psychology from Fordham University and has worked at The Ackerman Institute for the Family, Brooklyn VA, Center for the Intensive Treatment of Personality Disorder, and Beth Israel Hospital. Currently, Simon works at New York University and Vienna Praxis, a private practice in downtown Manhattan, working with individuals and couples. She aims to connect her clients with their inner resources and deepen self-understanding to be able to find greater intimacy in relationships.
As experts in romantic relationships, Humphrey and Simon offer regular workshops in deepening connection to the self and to others, co-host a love and sex podcast, and have made several appearances on the Today Show.