When conflicts arise in a relationship, it’s easy to blame our partner. But the real culprit might be stress.
According to the American Institute of Stress, more than a quarter of people surveyed in 2014 felt alienated from a friend or family member because of stress, and over half had fought with people close to them. Relationships are worse off when people are under stress. The more stressed a person is, the less satisfied they are with their close relationships.
And if both partners are stressed—as is so often the case when modern couples juggle work schedules and parenthood—this is even more likely to happen. In a 2015 study, stressed partners received less support when their partner was also stressed. This study showed that, compared to when they were calm, stressed men and women provided less support to each other: fewer hugs, kind words, and empathic responses.
So what can be done?
We might decide to keep stress to ourselves, shielding our partner from our problems and grumpiness. We try to stay positive and “leave work at work,” to avoid bringing negativity home. But that is a mistake. It’s extremely difficult to keep our emotions under wraps like this, and can be detrimental to our wellbeing. It also means we’re missing the chance to make our partner feel better by letting them help. In a study by UoC, women either squeezed a stress ball or held their partner’s arm as he received an electric shock. The ones who faced their loved one’s stress head-on, offering comfort instead of focusing on themselves, experienced less neural activity in the stress centre of the brain and more activity in the brain’s caregiving and reward systems—and they felt more connected.
The answer may be as simple as asking for help when we need it. Studies have shown that stressed wives got more support from their spouses not just because husbands offered it more but also because wives asked for it more.
So don’t be afraid to send up the distress signal. And, if you’re on the receiving end, heed it. Coping with stress together helps our close relationships survive and thrive.