Managing Feelings — 25 July 2012
How to support your partner in times of stress

Feeling stressed about work, money, time management, children, family and life demands is a common experience for most adults. A certain amount of stress serves us well but when we become overwhelmed, paralyzed, ineffective or agitated our competence, health and relationships may suffer. How can you best help your mate when he/she becomes overstressed?

Researcher Shelley Taylor of UCLA explains the purpose of stress, “An appropriate and modulated stress response is at the core of survival. The human stress response has been characterized, both physiologically and behaviorally, as ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.”  For self-preservation, when one perceives a threat, he/she may elect to fight or withdraw.

The stressed individual is prone to think in finite terms, “I can never get my boss to like my work.” “We will never get out of debt.” “As hard as I try I can never please you.” “I can’t handle the kids.” “This is too much for me and it will never get better.”

Whether the mate’s stress is personal or relational, it affects both partners. The overtaxed individual may withdraw or become upset, argumentative, testy or belligerent. It then calls upon the spouse to respond with a calming, reassuring and supportive tone and message. This response will enable the mate to gain composure and restore a more balanced perspective about the perceived threat.

Professor Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago found that “marriage and similar long-term romantic relationships have a dampening effect on cortisol’s (the stress hormone) response to psychological stress.” He adds, “Although marriage can be pretty stressful, it should make it easier for people to handle other stressors in their lives.”

Most love partners are untrained in calming an overwhelmed mate. Yet, their compassionate caring is the most trusted energy in soothing their overwrought partner. Your spouse’s exacerbated fear, self-berating, and worst-case logic are receptive to your calm and supportive attitude.

To effectively facilitate your partner’s resumption of balanced emotional and logical reactions you are wise to abandon judgment about the accuracy of your mate’s perceptions and concentrate solely on the pained emotions. Using logic to dissuade a distressed mate from his/her stated “reality” is futile. Yet, your compassionate understanding is the best antidote for reducing your partner’s acute distress. Once the pain subsides, your mate will regain his/her composure, problem-solving skills and healthy perspective.

Support your stressed partner:

  • Abandon your activity and become fully present to your mate.
  • Provide eye contact, tender touch and compassionate concern as your mate expresses his/her distress.
  • Abstain from correcting your partner’s perceptions. Validate the stated emotions: “I understand how upsetting it is for you to feel unappreciated by your boss.”
  • Continue with a sincere appreciation: “It is a shame that today your boss was unable to recognize your great contribution to the project. You are a hard worker and a gifted employee.”
  • Maintain your calm, loving support in face of your partner’s distress. Your relationship will become stronger and healthier.


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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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