At the end of a stressful day, the way spouses manage their stress levels can end up strengthening their connection to each other — or push them apart.
Researchers surveyed over 100 heterosexual couples in Switzerland about their stress response to daily hassles over the prior year — and published their findings in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. They reported that external stress, such as workload, conflicts with co-workers and friends, and financial problems affected a couple’s satisfaction with their relationship. The more stress they had from daily hassles outside their relationship, the more stress and dissatisfaction they felt in their relationship.
Stressed men, in particular, tend to offer less support when faced with emotional expressions of stress from their wives, according to a study called “Effects of Stress on the Social Support Provided by Men and Women in Intimate Relationships,” as published in the journal Psychological Science.
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A separate study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology observed couples in their homes over four days. Looking for instances in which the couples offered support to each other, researchers found they did so only 4 percent of the time. And in this study, wives did not increase the support they offered their husbands when these husbands came home from an extra-stressful day at work.
It might seem reasonable to encourage spouses to find ways to manage their stress on their own, rather than to bring it into their marriage. But researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered this is not the best solution for couples who want to feel more connected to each other.
To wit: The researchers compared women who squeezed a stress ball or held their husbands’ arms while the men received an electric shock to women who offered comfort to their male partners. The women who offered support to their partners experienced more activity in the caring and reward systems of their brains. Afterward, these women felt more connected to their partners than those who only squeezed the stress ball or held their partners’ arms.
Husbands and wives who support each other through stressful moments in their lives strengthen the connection they have with each other. They develop a stronger partnership, a feeling that they’re on the same team. This strong sense of “we-ness” has been identified by marriage researcher John Gottman as a trait common among couples in lasting, satisfying marriages.
When you and your spouse reunite at the end of a stressful day, consider taking these steps to support each other and build a stronger connection:
1.) Take turns complaining. Give each other 15 minutes to express frustrations. When one spouse is finished, the other takes a turn.
2.) Don’t give advice unless asked. Offering advice or guidance generally isn’t considered supporting by those receiving it, unless they ask for it.
3.) Engage with Interest. As your spouse complains, your first priority is to connect with your eyes and ears to what he or she is saying — and how the frustrations are expressed. Don’t listen only to the words, but tune into body language and emotions. Ask questions to show your interest and help you understand the experience.
4.) Communicate understanding. As you get a sense of your spouse’s thoughts and feelings, connect verbally. Tell your partner in your own words what you’ve heard him or her say.
Assure your loved one you’re on the same side — and that you’re a team.
5.) Be an ally. As your spouse complains, it’s not the time to render a judgment or overreact. Now is the time to stand with your spouse against the adversary. Assure your loved one you’re on the same side — and that you’re a team.
6.) Show affection. Connecting with positive physical touches like hugs or affectionate words like “I love you” can be powerful antidotes to stress.
7.) Validate emotions. Connect emotionally. Reassure your spouse his or her feelings make sense by sincerely saying, “I understand why you feel the way you do.”
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”