This article first appeared on The Good Men Project and has been republished with permission.
Over the holidays, you probably had a few stressful moments. It’s inevitable. Or maybe you’ve noticed your partner feeling and acting stressed out. In a relationship, people often have different sensitivity levels to stress, and find different situations stressful. You may wish your partner would relax when you’re relaxed. You may think they take things too seriously or personally, or respond poorly in stressful situations you wish they’d handle better.
The things that stress you out may not stress out your partner, and vice versa.
This can sometimes lead one person to react to their partner’s stress dismissively. It’s hard to understand another person’s stress when you don’t share it, and because stress can come from both internal and external triggers, we can’t always see the layers of thoughts, feelings, memories, associations and fears that contribute to someone’s stress level.
Reacting to your partner’s stress the wrong way, however, can make them even more anxious.
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Here are some common unhelpful ways partner’s react to one another’s stress.
- Making assumptions about what your partner feels, or bluntly and critically calling them out on their stress. (“What’s wrong? Why are you so stressed out?”)
- Being oversolicitous with suggestions and advice that are really more about your own need to feel good. (“Maybe you should just relax? Why don’t you take a walk? Jeez, don’t take it all so seriously.”)
- Subtly undermining your partner’s sense of competence by inserting yourself into the situation and “taking over” in a way that suggests they’re not able to manage things when they’re experiencing stress. (“Here, you do something else, I better do that.”)
- Layering judgment and blame onto whatever your partner is already feeling. (“I can’t believe you’re stressed out. I just wanted us to have a good time but I can’t have a good time when you’re stressed out like this.”)
- Subtly abandoning or punishing your partner under the guise of “taking care of the situation.” (“Why don’t you just go home. I’d rather do this alone if you’re going to be like this. Just forget the whole thing, I’ll manage without you.”)
More helpful responses to your stressed-out partner begin with focusing on yourself and your reactions first.
Don’t try to fix them. Notice how your partners stress affects you. This can help you self-soothe rather than trying to control your partner’s experience. Once you notice the impact on you of your partner’s (perceived) stress, try soothing yourself by closing your eyes, picturing a relaxing scene (eg. your “happy place”), counting or focusing on your breaths, or repeating a relaxing mantra such as, “I’m at peace,” or “I trust this moment.”
Then, when you feel more centered, you’ll have a better chance of figuring out how to actually help your partner rather than offering pseudo-help. This may mean staying out of your partners way until they resolve whatever is creating stress for them, or asking, “Can I help?” Or it may mean allowing a little time to pass and letting the stressful moment go without doing anything at all.