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How to Cope When External Stressors Take A Toll On Our Relationships

Living and providing expert couples therapy in my hometown of Fort Lauderdale, we had a big scare this past weekend when Hurricane Irma threatened to hit us directly as a monster Category 4 storm. At the very last minute however, our beautiful coast was spared and we received minimal damage. As grateful as I am that my home and city were saved, the Florida Keys were not as lucky. They felt a direct hit and are in my thoughts as they regroup and try to find a sense of normalcy once again.

As I started thinking about the stress that a hurricane, or any external factor for that matter, can bring to our lives, I thought about how many couples were actually buckling under the pressure rather than coming together in times of crisis.

We can easily take the stress of work, money problems, an unexpected hospital stay or waiting in line for hurricane supplies out on our loved ones. When our sense of safety and security is threatened, we have an impulse to get rid of our rising anxiety as quickly as possible. Similar to the game of “hot potato,” we want to get rid of it fast, and where we throw it or whom it lands on can have long-term, negative consequences.

If you’re still picking up the pieces from Hurricane Irma here in Florida or have been feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders in another part of the country, having a stress-reducing conversation gets you leaning on your spouse during your time of need rather than taking it out on them.

Research from The Gottman Institute suggests that couples should communicate about individual worries, concerns and frustrations regularly as a way to vent and gain support from their significant others. A stress-reducing conversation allows the opportunity to let go of harboring irritations that engulf us throughout the day and helps provide an opportunity to hear words of encouragement from our loved one when- whether we admit it or not- we need it the most.

Whether hearing it said aloud or just having the feeling that your partner “has your back” when you’re struggling, that sentiment goes a long way to melt the troubles of the day away and fill your heart with warmth.

Tips on how to have an effective stress-reducing conversation:

  1. Always support your partner and never side with the enemy. Do say, “I’m so mad at your boss for you! How could he make you work late like that again!?” Don’t say, “Well you know you always procrastinate until the last minute. No wonder he asked you to stay late.”
  2. Don’t give unsolicited advice. Understanding must precede advice. Ask questions, seek understanding and OFFER advice before volunteering it. Do say, “I might be able to help you with this if you’d like to problem-solve it together.” Don’t say, “Give him a piece of your mind and then get over it. It does nothing to keep worrying and talking incessantly about it.” The latter is a dismissive comment and we sometimes just need a listening ear.
  3. Tap into your own feelings and don’t project them onto your partner. Do say, “I’m feeling so stressed about having to put up the hurricane shutters and I don’t think we have enough water to last us. What can we do?” Don’t say, “It’s all your fault! We should have gone to the store sooner. See! I told you!” That statement takes your anger and places it onto your loved one. You’re taking your anxiety and stress out on them. Try and tackle it as a team.
  4. Don’t assume that your partner’s complaints are complaints about you too. Your spouse may be frustrated, but it could be about something unrelated to the relationship. Sometimes when we hear a venting session, we tend to assume that our significant other is frustrated as a whole, and clump the marriage and ourselves into the mix. That might not be the case at all. Understand the difference and separate the two.
  5. Use empathy. Putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and being able to use words and phrases to convey that you understand what they are going through is essential to feeling heard, validated and understood.

Marriage counseling can be another great opportunity to work through stress, anxiety and anger build-up. Couples counseling is proven to be effective in healing resentments that have formed over time, as well as help improve communication so that you can work through tough issues together.

When the storm of life hits and you find yourself bickering with the one you love, remember the stress-reducing conversation. Now is the time to battle the hurricane together, rather than feeling like you’re on your own, just trying to grasp for air.

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