Couples come to me to help them improve their relationships before they get married or a few years after they’re married, or many years after they’re married. When I see these couples, I don’t assume that they will be fixed in a specific period of time, by a specific amount, or that they even need to be “fixed”.
Instead, what I do assume is this. Individuals encounter stressors in many areas of life. These areas may include juggling demands of looking after the needs of aging parents, supporting oneself, ensuring visits with children or dealing with a spouse from a past relationship, and still somehow eaking out some time to get enough exercise and enjoy hobbies and personal interests.
When two individuals, each with their ongoing demands, decide they like or love each other enough to hang around each other a lot, or even decide to live together or get married, their personal stressors overlap. They overlap “big time”!
Now, stressors come in three major varieties. One is the sort of stress that is manageable and is associated with positive coping and good functioning. Another is the type of stress that is still managable but is starting to impact functioning and is a little bit distressing. The third type is stress that is unmanageable and is having a large impact on functioning and is very distressing.
What are the possible responses to these stressors? On an individual basis, it can help to look at how we respond to difficulties or roadblocks in our daily lives. It could be a roadblock if a child doesn’t do what she or he is told…or if our car breaks down between our home and the ski hill…
Either of these could be stressful situations, depending on how we handle it. We might have an argument with our partner in either situation, and then, after we have vented our feelings at each other, we might handle it calmly and work together to resolve it.
Research has shown that a large factor in how we handle stress is our interpretation of the stress. We might see the stress as manageable and not get upset. We might see it as manageable and get a little upset, or we might see it as unmanageable and get very upset.
When couples come to me for counselling, I’ve noticed that there is practically always something that has alienated them from each other. Based on questionnaires I give couples who I see, there are numerous ways they have become alienated. These include arguing too often, not communicating well or understanding each other very well, disagreeing strongly with each other on certain issues, not spending the time together that they would like, and – perhaps surprisingly – spending too much time together.
Of course, becoming alienated from our partners can be very stressful. That stress can come from the relationship not functioning like we would prefer it to, or like it did when we first met when it was all romantic and sexy. It can be emotionally painful and stressful to realize that the relationship is moving away from the warm feelings of romantic love, frequent intimacy, and deep connection that we felt at the beginning.
Back then, our new partner was perhaps a kind of solace, a special person we could confide in, who helped us to relieve stress we felt elsewhere in our lives. Our new partner really became a way of coping with – or even escaping – the personal stressors we were dealing with at the time.
Now that we’ve moved passed that point, and we’re noticing that our partner has some foibles just like us – some of which are kind of irritating – they stop fulfilling us in the way they did at the beginning. Now, we have to start buildling a whole new set of coping strategies to deal not only with our own personal stressors at work and with our own parents, siblings, and kids we have already, but also with the stressors our partner brings into our lives.
How do we support our partner when they start increasing the level of our stress? Sometimes, it can even feel like they are doing it on purpose, just to bug us!
More information about stress management (including an interactive video) can be found on Mental Health Pros which can be accessed through the Home Study section of www.DawsonPsychologicalServices.com.