When stress enters any relationship, it has the potential to create distance, disagreements and disconnection. But by supplying a steady supply of support for your partner when he or she is stressed, not only can you help prevent your relationship from becoming strained, you can create a new level of intimacy that actually brings you both closer together.
But what is the best way of providing support? Are some ways better than others?
According to a 2012 Florida State University study that examined the role of support in households where daily stress is common to both spouses, not all methods of support lead to positive outcomes.
To help you better understand the most effective ways of helping your partner during stressful times, we break down several factors to pay attention to:
RECOGNIZING STRESS SYMPTOMS
Hectic schedules and everyday work-life demands make it easy to become wrapped up in our own our world. But when we lose sight of our partner’s stress, we are not communicating and we are not connecting. This is why it is imperative to make the extra effort to recognize when your partner is struggling.
Ask yourself: How does my partner show his or her stress? How do his or her sleeping habits, eating habits, mood, energy levels or disposition change?
Woman are particularly more likely to report physical symptoms associated with stress than men, which means it may be more difficult to read a man. But by staying in tune with your partner, you will find opportunities to express your support and love, helping your partner endure the demanding times while strengthening your relationship.
When your partner is undergoing stress, he or she may become aloof or agitated and may withdraw emotionally or even physically. This can leave you feeling lonely and vulnerable. But rather than giving into these emotions and adding to the negative tension within the relationship, take a step back and show some compassion — not just for your partner, but for yourself.
By tending to your own needs during these times, you will be stronger, more secure and better equipped to be the anchor that your partner (and your relationship) needs.
OPEN THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION
Many people have the tendency to draw inwards when they are feeling anxious or upset. According to Sheryl Paul, M.A., “They may have learned early in life that their needs won’t get met, so they eventually learn to stop asking for what they need. This is where being in an intimate relationship can be profoundly powerful for healing old wounds.”
Paul encourages that if you see that your partner has retreated, to make the effort to approach him and say something like, “You seem like you’re having a hard time. How can I help you right now?” This will open the lines of communication and let your partner know that he or she can depend on you for support.
During times of stress, our partners want to feel supported without inciting emotion from our side. This can be especially difficult if you have added to their stress and listening without judgment or immediate reaction will require a tremendous amount of patience, kindness and compassion.
MEN AND WOMEN REACT DIFFERENTLY
Men and women react differently to stress. One of the fundamental reasons for this has to do with stress hormones.
When stress strikes, the body releases hormones called cortisol and epinephrine which band together to raise blood pressure and circulate blood sugar level. Oxytocin, is then released from the brain, countering the impact of cortisol and epinephrine by relaxing the emotions.
Men release less oxytocin than women when they are stressed, meaning they have a stronger reaction from both cortisol and epinephrine.
A study published in Psychological Review suggested that this caused women to be more likely to handle stress by “tending and befriending,” that is, nurturing those around them in effort to both protect themselves and their young. Men, however, release smaller doses of oxytocin, which make them more likely to have the “fight or flight” response when it comes to stress — either repressing their emotions and escaping, or fighting back. So what does this all mean?
A woman’s identity and sense of self-esteem are both closely linked to her feelings of adequacy in relationships. So she is likely to appreciate feeling wanted, receiving expressions of comfort and caring, and generally being taken care of.