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The dirty secret about stress and love

Living with stress will do to your nice relationship what drug gangs living all around you will do to your nice neighborhood. So can love survive stress? Let's just say love under stress is a high-risk proposition. But you gotta understand how this works.

It starts with pressure. The baby’s crying. Pressure. Your mom calls to tell you she has to go into the hospital. Pressure. You get an email from

your boss telling you you have to re-do your presentation. Pressure. Your partner suddenly starts complaining about how you spend too much money. Pressure. Now add these things up. Tons of pressure.

The stress part’s more complicated. After all, no one’s holding a gun to your head forcing you to get all stressed out by this stuff. Sometimes we cope with pressure just fine, like a sailboat sailing gracefully through a strong wind. But lots of times—most of the time—the pressure gets to us and we not only feel stressed, we feel stressed OUT. As in tapped out. Broken.

We’ve all been there. Some of us land in this place every day. Some of us live in this place all day.

So what does this have to do with love and relationships? Permit me to introduce you to the stress implosion. This may be a new idea to you. You’ll recognize this the minute I describe it.

What is the stress implosion? Suppose you’re totally relaxed—no stress at all—and I want to talk to you. Sure! No problem. You can listen and hear what I have to say. You have the time for that.

But suppose you’re in some stress. It’s going to be harder for you to pay attention to what I have to say. Harder to care about what I’m saying. Harder to care about me as a person. Harder to feel generous with your time. Harder for you to want to give anything to me. And the more stress you’re in, the harder that will be.

This is the stress implosion. The more your stress increases, the harder and harder it gets to pay any attention to anyone else or to care about anyone else. Yeah, maybe we can make stock comments just to get the other person off our backs, but at some point even that gets hard to do. But when your stress level reaches a certain point, you have no patience for or interest in anyone else at all unless they’re bleeding on the floor in front of you.

This is why doctors and nurses in busy hospitals can sometimes seem like assholes. They’re not really. They’re just suffering from the stress implosion, like you and me.

Now here’s how all this plays out in relationship land.

We want to love one another. We DO love one another. But the stress implosion that goes along with stress drives out any ability we have to put that love into action. Yes, on paper I love you with all my heart, but with all the stuff I have going on, and the emotional and cognitive and energetic burden it places on me, right now you are at best an annoying bee that’s somehow flown into the car of my life.

This sets up two possible dynamics.

Distance. If I’m caught in some level of the stress implosion maybe you’ll be smart enough to leave me the fuck alone. Now that’s good, except if we’re both in the stress implosion and this goes on for YEARS of kids and jobs and family and stuff like that, then all this “leaving you alone” adds up to years of distance. This is how relationships die like an unwatered plant.

Rage. Okay, so maybe you don’t leave me the fuck alone, and I don’t leave you the fuck alone either. Maybe I don’t believe that you’re really all that stressed out. Maybe you’re one of those people who hide their stressed-out-ness until they snap. Maybe I’m so far up the ass of my own stress implosion I just can’t see you at all. In any case, we bug each other, and—just to be left alone—we rage at each other. We get our distances, but at the price of hatred.

Now in reality, both of these dynamics are going on at the same time, more one dynamic for some couples, more the other for other couples. In any case, you see how toxic stress is for relationships.

You could almost say, hey, you can have a relationship or you can have stress, but you can’t have both. But then, there wouldn’t be any relationships. Not in our world today.

But since we do live in a toxic bath of relationship-destroying stress, what do we do about it? In theory the answer is easy. In practice, I’d be lying if I didn’t face the fact that real-life solutions are hard.

The easy part is conceptual. You can reduce the pressure coming in or cope better with it. See? Easy!

The first piece—reducing the pressure—means changing your life. Now I don’t know your life so I can’t tell you what to do. But I can tell you what my patients have done who’ve been successful with this. They’ve made hard choices. In other words, we all know what to do. We just don’t want to face doing it. But the people who actually reduce the pressure in their lives DO do those things. Maybe you can too.

As for the second piece, not getting so stressed out by the pressures on you, that’s a story in itself. Which I’ll tell you next time. So stay tuned.


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