Articles by Alex Ryder, Couple's counselling, Mental Health

Stress Damaging Your Relationship? – 10 Signs this is Happening

Despite the multitude of reasons a couple might come to see me for relationship counselling, a common trend is that one or both of the partners are feeling stressed. Indeed, 75% of Australians consider themselves to be relatively stressed[1]. Being located in Sydney and the Eastern Suburbs this stress is often accompanied by extremely long work hours and high pressure deadlines for most of the couples I see.

Stress is so common in our daily living that sometimes we don’t recognise we are experiencing it.

And it really doesn’t matter whether the stress is originating from within or from outside the relationship. Either way it can run ruin over you and your partner.

Stress causes activation of our sympathetic nervous system, which cause behaviours that involve some aspect of FIGHT, FLIGHT or FREEZE. These responses are great for protection and defence, but none of them are helpful for relationship building. They cause you to be reactive and defensive rather than showing empathy and building connection with your partner.

Stress is correlated with decreased marital satisfaction. There are a few reasons for that. Stressed couples spend less time together and therefore have fewer shared memories and interactions. And when they are both stressed, couples have poorer communication – and therefore a higher likelihood of damage to the relationship.

How do you know if your relationship problems are caused by stress?

Here are some signs that stress might be showing up in your relationship:

  1. Irritable and quick reactions – one of the first things we lose when we are stressed is our patience. Are you noticing you have less time for your partner’s failings or shortfalls?
  1. Your communication skills disappear – quality of communication decreases by up to 40% when you are stressed[2]. You’re more likely to be defensive and blame your partner, and less likely to listen and reflect what your partner is saying. So if communication is breaking down with your partner, then stress may be playing a role. A good indicator or this is if you are noticing any of the following communication behaviours: Criticism (attacking character), Defensiveness (avoiding responsibility and blaming your partner), Contempt (feeling superior) or Stonewalling (cutting off or shutting down). These behaviours, if left unchecked, predict divorce with 83% accuracy[3].
  1. You feel justified or even self-righteous – rarely are you 100% right in a relationship. If you feel that way, you might not have the head space to entertain an alternative perspective at the moment. That’s a sign of stress or overload.
  1. You are looking for distractions – when you feel stressed or anxious you tend to crave distraction to make you feel better in the moment. Social media and funny YouTube videos are great distractions. But if you find yourself glued to your phone it’s likely there is underlying anxiety.
  2. Feeling less sure of the relationship – When stressed, partners provide fewer assurances to each other because they are focused on their own challenges. So without those assurances it is natural that questions about the relationship may arise.
  1. Feeling attracted to others – You are more like to find others outside your relationship more attractive and pay them more attention when feeling stressed. This is because the grass looks greener on the other side and it’s easy to fantasize that others are having a better time than you are.
  1. All or nothing thinking – When overwhelmed, the simplicity of all or nothing thinking is attractive. You might find yourself questioning the entire relationship or your partner’s character based on your most recent argument.
  1. A lack of meaningful conversations – there is less time and space for meaningful conversations when you are stressed. These conversations take more effort and they are more risky because there is more chance someone will react. But meaningful conversations are what make us feel connected to our partners so without these conversations our relationship can be at risk. If you notice it has been a while since you spoke meaningfully with your partner it is likely that stress is present.
  1. Equality in the relationship changes – stress normally results in one partner ‘under-functioning’ and the other partner ‘over-functioning’ to make up for it. If one of you is doing more work than normal in the relationship that could be a sign of stress.
  1. Feeling distant – empathy and communication make you feel close to your partner. These tend to go out the window when you are stressed and therefore leave you feeling more distant and alone.

Stress is almost a given in our lives today. That is why it is crucial we learn to recognise it and deal with it in a healthy way in our relationship. And none of these challenges are insurmountable. So if you recognise stress in your relationship and you’re not sure how to deal with it; or if it has been present for a while, then couples counselling with a trained relationship therapist will help you get back on track.

Contact Sydney Couple and Family Specialist today on 02 8968 9397.

Keep an eye out for my next blog which will give you strategies to handle stress in your relationship, so you can improve love and connection with your partner.

[1]Lehmann, M. (2008) Stress Buster. Work Solution: Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation. Retrieved from ABC, Stress Buster Report 2008.

[2] Bodenmann, G., & Shantinath, S. (2004). The couples coping enhancement training (CCET): A new approach to prevention of marital distress based upon stress and coping. Family Relations, 53, 477-484.

[3] Gottman, J., Coan, J., Carrere, S. & Swanson, C. (1998) Prediciting Marital Happiness and Stability from Newlywed Interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, 5-2

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