The 3 Biggest Causes Of Stress In Relationships (And How To Handle Them)
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Love is great and all, but that's not to say relationships can't be incredibly stressful.
A new survey of over 1,000 people conducted by online therapy service Basis identified the most common causes of stress within a relationship. Here are the top three ways our love lives can stress out—and what to do about them:
1. Uncertainty about the future.
This was the No. 1 cause of stress from relationships among both men and women. A quarter of all respondents indicated uncertainty about the future in their relationships as a source of worry. That's understandable: It can be uniquely nerve-wracking to feel deeply connected to someone but not know if that connection will last.
Here's what to do about it:
- Talk about it. If you haven't yet, sex educator Stella Harris recommends talking to your partner about what you're nervous about. "For one, it's helpful to set a precedent of honesty and transparency. Also, getting in the habit of asking for reassurances when you need them can be really helpful," she recently told mbg.
- Check in with your partner more often about how you're both feeling about the relationship. I love business coach David Burns' regular relationship "reviews" he holds with his wife. While you can't expect your partner to immediately commit to a forever with you just because you're feeling stressed about it, it can be reassuring to just know where they're at. Try having more frequent, open dialogue about how you're both feeling and ways to keep the relationship moving forward.
- Try a shared gratitude practice. It helps you both stay in the present and focus on all the wonderful things your relationship gives you now instead of worrying so much about what the future holds.
2. Arguments and disagreements.
The next biggest relationship stressor was conflict, with 22 percent of respondents saying arguments and disagreements had caused them stress in the last week.
Here's what to do about it:
- Avoid "lumpy carpet syndrome." That's what marriage therapist Linda Carroll calls some couples' tendency to just sweep problems and disagreements under the carpet; eventually there's so much under there that you're bound to trip. She recommends resolving conflicts quickly so their negative effects don't linger: "We need to stop pushing matters under the rug and to either deal with hurt or conflict right away or to discard them as inconsequential."
- Stop thinking of conflict as a bad thing! After we have a fight, my partner cannot stop sending me love notes via text the next day while he's at work. Sometimes he even says our fights make him "happy" because of the way they bring us closer. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say fighting makes me happy, but there's definitely something to be said for viewing conflicts as opportunities to enhance your relationship. Relationship therapist Bonnie Eaker Well recommends imbuing your periods of conflict with a lot of signs of affection during and after to build a "bridge from conflict to passion."
- Hug it out.Research shows hugging can lower the amount of negative emotions that get stirred up around and after a fight. It's a great way to make sure stress from a conflict isn't lingering on in the aftermath. After you've resolved an argument, make sure you're getting some physical touch in to release those love hormones.
3. Lack of effort from the other person.
Finally, 19 percent of people felt stressed about a lack of effort from their partner. This is a tough one—it can be crushing to feel like your partner isn't trying hard enough or investing as much time or energy into the relationship as you are. It's also one of the hardest things in the world to walk up to someone and say, "Hey, care about me more." Often if a person doesn't care, there's not much that can be done to change that.
Talk to your partner about the way you're feeling. Tell them you're not feeling sustained and valued enough in your relationship and see how they respond. If they do care, they'll make their own change to show you how they feel about you. If they don't, then you know where they stand.
Couples counselor Margaret Paul often teaches about the importance of accepting that we can't control other people's hearts or actions and how that acceptance can set us free.
"People, especially women, are taught to always try to make relationships work; we are emotional problem-solvers," she writes at mbg. "But accepting our complete lack of control over others can actually give us a unique form of power. It was not easy, but once I took my eyes off this other person and put them squarely on myself—on what I could do to take loving care of myself in the face of unloving behavior—my life got dramatically better. Instead of spending my energy trying to get love and get others to change, which was making me physically sick, I began to spend my energy learning to love myself. … The reality is, letting go of people who won't change is a radical act of self-care."
Relationship stress is normal!
All relationships come with their fair share of stress and conflict, much of which will come and go as the seasons change. Some of the other causes of relationship stress the survey identified included feeling misunderstood (about 19 percent of both men and women were dealing with this), growing apart (about 13 percent of women and 14 percent of men), and feeling left out (13 percent of women and 12 percent of men).
If you’re dealing with one of these common causes of stress in relationships, know that you’re by no means alone. What’s important is figuring out ways of coping with negative feelings around your relationship quickly so they don’t linger and cause you ongoing stress. At the end of the day, the whole point of sharing your life with someone is to offer stability, support, and relief from stress as you move through your life.
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