Here’s the bad news: Up to 98 percent of American adults report feeling some form of stress on a regular basis.
Here’s the worse news: Feeling stressed can mean trouble for relationships, as more and more research points to the toxic effect stress can have on our personal lives.
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But don’t worry, just because your anxiety is at an all-time high, doesn’t mean your love life is doomed. Using a few proven strategies, you can learn to spot the signs that stress is negatively impacting your relationship and take steps to prevent (or at least mitigate) its harm. Take a deep breath, relax, and read on.
How to Tell If Stress Is Killing Your Mojo
Whether it’s caused by work or health problems, stress can negatively affect relationships in a variety of ways. One study that followed 80 couples over four years found that those who experienced more stress outside of their relationship reported feeling less comfortable and less close with their partner. They also felt less sure of the relationship than folks who experienced less stress.
“People who reported more ‘technoference’ in their relationship also perceived more conflict.”
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Signs of stress may vary between individuals and among partners — but it’s never an excuse for abusive behavior (if you’re a victim, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline). However, if you feel you’re in a healthy relationship, these five signs might indicate that stress is taking a toll on your personal life.
1. You’re super irritable.
If you perceive everything your partner says as a slight or get miffed extra easily, stress may be a factor. The longer stress lasts, the more likely we are to feel grumpy or argumentative and lash out.
2. Your communication skills go down the tube.
When you’re feeling chronically stressed or overwhelmed, your ability to practice positive communication (i.e., to talk about who’s doing laundry without it turning into a blowout fight) actually declines. That’s because stress can prevent your ability to focus and promote negative thinking. It can also impair cognition, judgment and listening skills, according to Dr. Michael Mantell, Ph.D., an Advanced Behavior Coach.
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3. You’re viewing your whole relationship as a flop.
When we’re chronically stressed, we’re more likely to perceive even the best relationship in a negative light. We’re also unlikely to realize that stress is factoring into that perception.
4. Your eyes are wandering.
Research shows we’re more likely to feel attracted to other people when feeling taxed. Anxiety can make us fantasize about being with a different partner and pay less positive attention to the one we already have.
5. You’re glued to your phone.
When we’re under pressure, it can be difficult to step away from email and texts. In one study, people who reported more “technoference” in their relationship also perceived more conflict and depressive symptoms and lower relationship satisfaction overall. That means talking on your phone during dinner with your partner can be both a sign of stress and a cause of it.
5 Ways to Save Your Relationship from Stress
If you’re now stressing about the fact that stress is wrecking your relationship — stop! The good news is that it’s entirely possible to manage stressors, thereby reducing their ability to do harm. “You have more control over your environment than your thoughts might lead you to believe,” Dr. Mantell says. “But even if you can’t avoid a situation or alter it, you can reframe the problem more positively with each other, look at the large picture and change your perspective.” Taking the following steps can help keep your relationship on track to happily ever after.
“Be each other’s defense attorney, not prosecutor.”
1. Create a plan.
Whenever you and your partner are in a good place, craft a game plan for how you’ll cope with the arrival of tension in the future. Dr. Mantell recommends agreeing to work to reduce reactivity (think: major blow-ups) and help identify each other’s negative thought patterns. Then, challenge those thoughts with more positive interpretations of the stressful scenario (for cool ways to channel stress into positivity, read this). Another good way to preempt stress: Exercise together.
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2. Reduce your own stress.
Learn how to relieve your own stress and your relationship will be better for it. Spend time outside, listen to music or practice deep breathing. Perhaps most important: Learn to shift your perspective. “Stress is an emotional and physiological response to thinking that an event, condition, or situation is [terrible] and that no good can come from [it],” says Dr. Mantell. The trick is to adopt more positive frameworks for difficult situations. Try to remind yourself that you’ll get through it, that there may even be a good reason a certain stressor has occurred—and at worst, it’s only one bad event.
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3. Encourage your partner to relax.
If you notice your partner is feeling stressed, try to offer them the support and space to work through their own feelings (some people need to cry; others hit the gym for a week of two-a-days). Helping your partner feel cared for will soothe their stress, which will allow your relationship to weather the storm.
4. Prioritize commitment.
If you’re feeling too strained to connect with your partner every day, Dr. Mantell recommends putting things in perspective. “Help each other remember you cannot control the uncontrollable, to always look for victory not defeat, to agree to set aside time to talk and be each other’s defense attorney, not prosecutor,” Dr. Mantell says. Ask yourself: What will your relationship look like in one month (and in six months) if you don’t prioritize time with your partner? What are the advantages of putting your partnership first, and what are the disadvantages? The answers to these questions should motivate you to pursue quality time together.
5. Ask for help.
Like it or not, your partner won’t always provide for all your needs. Sometimes he or she will be too overworked to help you as effectively as you’d like, and vice versa. When one or both of you is struggling to meet the other’s needs, don’t be afraid to enlist the help of trusted friends, relatives, or a licensed therapist.
Within the context of a relationship (or pretty much anything in life), you will never be able to control everything, Mantell says. But you can own your side of things by learning to identify signs that stress is affecting your relationship and taking steps to minimize the damage.