Couples and Stress: Keeping your Relationship Vital and Happy In Difficult Times

Life of late has been filled with more uncertainties and stress then ever.

Career, finance, and family challenges are all accentuated by the momentum of modern life. Psychology sometimes makes the mistake of looking at relationships as if they existed in a bubble – approaching relationship stress is as if it were only about the personal and relational dynamic between partners, the inner world of intimacy. But what about the outer world? Relationships – just like individuals – are pushed and pulled by the daily demands of living. Sometimes the going gets especially rough. When partners are in survival mode or simply experiencing the daily grind, relationship needs can end up on the bottom of the priority list and lead to conflict and loss of intimacy.

So how do you keep intimacy alive and well in stressful times? Here are three of the most common problems brought to you by these difficult times and some suggestions for what you and your partner can do about them.

  1. Not enough “quality time” together. Between long hours at work, chores and bills, and for those with families, the 24/7 demands of parenting, many couples only have relaxed, unstructured time together when they finally crawl into bed at the end of the day. No energy may be left for conversation, let alone intimacy.

    The fix:

    Plan time together on evenings and weekends. To make this possible, you may need to reduce or cut out one or two extracurricular activities. Make this a priority. Think simple and uncomplicated: take a walk, make a meal or watch a movie. Try to eat dinner together, even on workdays, with TV, computer and cell phone off. If you have a family, include the kids but don’t let them dominate the conversation.  Finding nothing to talk about?  Each day, look for something funny or different that happens. File it in your memory, then share it with your partner.

  2. Too Much Change, Too Quickly.  Job loss, job change, moving, financial insecurity, getting older, family crises, health problems, new safety concerns… STOP! For many of us the world is changing very fast. We live with more uncertainty than ever. This can make us more anxious, irritable or just numb. The problem with this is that we bring not only the best but also the worst of ourselves to our primary relationship.  Irritability and anxiety can easily play out between partners, and the relationship suffers.

    The fix:

    First, admit to yourself you are experiencing worry, frustration, or a sense of feeling overwhelmed. Now talk about it with your partner, reminding them they don’t need to fix the problem and to just listen.  Name the “elephant in the living room.” Stress from too-rapid change is normal. Just putting it into words will help. Now, if you realize that one or both of you have been irritable, anxious or “checked-out” in the relationship, own it. Don’t beat up on yourself, but do apologize. Now that you recognize that change can can cause stress, you can talk about when it happens.  This will will relieve some pressure and help prevent becoming “The Bickersons.”

  3. Crises of Confidence.  Confidence in ourselves and in each other brings tenacity and “spark” to our relationships. It allows us to navigate through rough times and recognize the future will be better. Confidence is also a necessary ingredient for intimacy and libido in a relationship. One of the results of “too much change too quickly” can be a loss of self-confidence. Things don’t make sense, there is too much to absorb and we have the nagging feeling we have somehow failed. Shaken confidence can affect the quality of our primary relationship. Self-doubt can also effect our confidence in each other. This plays out as one or both partners withdrawing a little from each other, feeling listless or more irritable. There can even be a mood of depression or of resentment. When confidence is shaken, we look for someone to blame and this “blame game” can play itself out in the relationship.

    The fix:

    First, a reality check: successful people never lose their confidence, right?  Nope, loss of confidence happens to everyone, sooner or later. And what’s more, most of us emerge from this kind of crisis wiser and more resilient.  So take a deep breath and stop seeing yourself as personally inadequate or uniquely cursed by fate. Remember what you like about yourself, reflecting on those qualities which are not defined by your job or your finances. If you are not used to introspection, this may take some digging. Write down a handful of things you like about yourself and your life that are not diminished by life’s ups and downs, so you can remember them when you get ambushed by loss or uncertainty.  Now talk to your partner about what you have been feeling, in a non-blaming way. Connect it to something positive by talking about what you like about yourself and your life and finally what you appreciate about them.

These challenges and fixes are the beginning, not the end, of the story. While these are just a sampling of stressors, looking at and working on them carefully can help you make sense of the task of having a sane relationship in a sometimes crazy world.

Putting these suggestions into practice can be straightforward but the process may also  highlight other aspects of the relationship that may need attention, such as  communication, intimacy or resentment. This is where couples therapy can have a big impact, working through both inner and outer stress to put your relationship back on track.

But for now, the best way to start may be to choose one of the challenges that most hits home and address it in a calm and non-blaming way. You and your partner will soon be on the way to getting your groove back.