Stress can have a distorting effect on our relationships. It can make us feel low and not wanting to talk to people. We tend to shut ourselves away and keep our emotions on the inside.
It can make us argumentative and prone to lashing out – ready to lose our temper in an instant. Or, it can cause us to oscillate between different moods at different times.
It’s hard to ‘plan’ for the effects of stress. Often, we don’t anticipate being stressed – stressful experiences often take us by surprise, and can come out of nowhere. A sudden increase in workload. An unwelcome call from your mum. An unexpected bill. One moment you’re feeling calm and happy; the next, hot, panicky and irritated.
Often, you feel that your response to stress is slightly beyond your control: you become withdrawn without quite realising you’re doing it. Or, you surprise yourself by becoming suddenly snappy, irritable and unreasonable.
How stress affects relationships
If you’re becoming withdrawn, your partner is likely to feel pushed away. And if you get snappy, they may feel hurt or become defensive. What can be really problematic, though, is that they may want to help, and feel that their efforts are being rebuffed. This can feel like a rejection and result in them becoming withdrawn or snappy themselves. The problems of stress can snowball: as one partner begins to act in a negative or unconstructive way, so might the other.
Moreover, your partner may not realise why you’re acting as you are. It may not be immediately apparent that it’s stress that’s causing you to say unkind things, or be unresponsive when spoken to. They may feel it’s something they’ve done. This can obviously be very upsetting and frustrating – both for the hurt caused and confusion about why it’s happening.
Without intervention, the gap from this situation can get wider and wider. And the more you feel your partner is a source of stress, the less likely you’ll be willing to try to close that gap.
How to communicate stress
Stress may put you in survival mode. You may feel that if you can just ride it out and deal with it by yourself, you can get back to normality. Stopping to explain yourself – letting someone else into the picture at that moment – can feel like losing control. It can feel as if you’re making yourself vulnerable at a time when you can’t be.
But, while being open can indeed make you vulnerable, it can also be empowering. It can allow you to take ownership of how you’re feeling, to recognise your emotions and to understand them in perspective. Saying how you’re doing out loud doesn’t make your problems any bigger – in fact, it can sometimes allow you to see they’re not as big as you thought.
And, of course, for all these reasons, it’s important to let your partner in so they don’t feel shut out, and so the situation doesn’t spiral into something deeper.
If you’re on the receiving end of this communication – or trying to be – it can be a bit of a tightrope. The temptation often is to try and convince your partner to say what’s on their mind – sometimes through criticism or badgering. But, as many of us will have experienced, this is just as likely to get them to clam up further.
Often, the best way is to use an approach that allows the person experiencing stress to stay in charge of how much they say. Often, the best first step is to simply say: ‘How can I help?’ This puts agency firmly with the person experiencing difficulties and is less likely to make them feel under pressure to talk.
If they still don’t want to go into it, then maybe letting them know you’re there to talk if they need you, and then giving them some space, is all you can do for the time being. No matter how much you would like to, you can’t force someone to let you in – particularly someone who is already feeling withdrawn or irritable – but you can make sure they know you’re on their side.
If your partner is open to talking, much the same applies. Again, it’s tempting to immediately begin to offer solutions, or to get them to ‘try to see the bright side’ – but, these can be stressful responses in themselves. They can feel like judgements, or as if you’re dismissing their experience as one that’s easily fixable. In some cases, this is exactly the response that the cagey person was fearing: one that demands they accede to it, rather than one that takes in how they’re feeling, and what they’re thinking.
Instead, it can be much more productive to just empathise and ask questions. Often, when we’re finding something difficult, what we want isn’t a solution, but just someone to be there with us and give emotional support. Supplying this – even if it means sitting quietly together or just hugging – may be all they need to begin to feel like the situation is under control.
We know that can sound vague, but all you’re doing is being curious and showing support. Don’t feel you have to always jump in and fill the silences. And it’s okay to admit you don’t know how to help! The main thing that matters is that your partner feels understood and cared for. The rest can follow.