When stress hits your relationship

We were recently interviewed by Psych Central about the effects of stress on relationships. Good topic! We all know that most relationships are stress vulnerable. That is, most relationships turn crappy and get crappier under the onslaught of stress.

The reason for this is simple: the thing we call “the stress implosion.” What’s that? We’ve all been there. When you’re not under any stress, you’re open to other people and their needs, at least as open as you can be. But as stress takes hold of you, your ability to think about, even care for, others deteriorates. We’re not proud of this, but it’s practically a law of nature. If you’re late getting out of the house for a very important meeting, you can easily be at the point where no one else in the household is anything but an annoyance. That’s the stress implosion.


And now for our interview.


“What are some of the most common reasons/causes that make couples argue or feel stress?”

Couples think they argue because they have conflicting needs. Well, they may have conflicting needs, but the real reason they argue is that they don’t know how to deal with each other when their needs are in conflict. Because they’re afraid they won’t be able to get their needs met, they default to using power moves with their partners: emotional, verbal, physical tactics which—however unintentional—result in their partner feeling disempowered and then doing something to re-empower themselves. It’s this back-and-forth of power moves—disempowerment and re-empowerment—that leads to the argument and the stress of the argument.

When time is short or a person’s need has a fear attached to it, this makes the need far more urgent, and the person is more likely to make a power move, or to respond with a power move.

This process, and the solution to it, is the subject of our new book Why Couples Fight.


“In a couple's argument, is there a common action or reaction that can escalate the tension like accusations or not apologizing?”

The only actions or reactions that escalate things are the ones that make the other person feel disempowered. If you accuse me of always being late, for example, I may feel, “Well, that’s true!” and say so. This accusation doesn’t make me feel disempowered. But if you say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I may feel that’s an attempt at a knock-out blow, a way to deny me any standing in our argument. And this will feel terribly disempowering. And I’ll feel compelled to do or say something to make myself feel re-empowered. So maybe I’ll mention some occasion when you made a terrible decision. Or I’ll just call you a jerk.


The point is that it’s the feeling of disempowerment that makes us want to rise up and fight back. The insanity of this is that each of our “knock-out blows” only serves as poking the bear with a stick. As we show in detail in Why Couples Fight.

“What advice would you give to a couple that is feeling tension and stress?”

A relationship is like having a baby. You have to take care of its needs. Now, sure, sometimes when one of you is going through a rough period the relationship can carry you along. But if out of tension and stress you beat the crap out of your relationship (and most couples do), it won’t be there for you after a while. It needs nurturing, which simply means: more of the good stuff (affection, connection, support, admiration...) and less of the bad stuff (recrimination, coldness, anger, put-downs, and other power moves...).

And it means finding time for your relationship.


“What kind of effects does prolonged stress have on a relationship? Can it grow to a point of no return?”


A long period of stress can bring a relationship to a point of no return, but it’s not a mystical process. This collapse is based on specific factors.

  • The bad memories crowd out the good memories.

  • We find other ways of getting our needs met than with our partner.

  • We form a negative image of our partner.

  • We form a negative image of our relationship.

  • And worst of all, we lose the ability to connect in the ways we used to do that would heal things. It’s the loss of healing connection that actually brings things to the point of no return.

“What can a person do when their partner is stressed or distant? Is there more that can be done than just ‘cheering them up’?"


When our partner is stressed or distant, too often our instinctive way of dealing with it is as a power move. Which would be crazy if it weren’t such a standard response. Their stressed-out state or distance is an inconvenience for us, so we want them to just cut it out. Even the most sensitive and sophisticated among us. This is why trying to cheer the other person up can be, and usually is, seen as a power move. “Oh, cheer up! Let me see that pretty smile!” is heard—correctly!—as, “Why don’t you just knock it off?”

Instead, the first move we have to make is an internal adjustment. To say to ourselves that this is about our partner, not about us.


And the second move is to ask! “What do you need?” “How can I help?” “Do you want to talk about what’s going on?”


Don’t offer a label for what’s going on. You don’t, you can’t know. But any one of the three questions above will give your partner a chance to saying something. And if they still don’t want to say anything, for goodness’ sake, leave them alone. Wait a day, and ask again, but don’t keep bugging them.


“What would you recommend that couples try when they are feeling stressed that can improve their relationship?”

Don’t try to improve your relationship when you’re stressed! Try to eliminate your stress!! That’s what your relationship needs most: it’s for two people to be out of their stress so it can take care of the relationship.


And since so much relationship stress comes from unmet needs and the resentment and grievances that are the by-product of power struggles in relationships, you’d be helping yourself a lot if you checked out Why Couples Fight for insights and ways to transform the ways you deal with each other.

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