Stress and Relationships

By Taylor Roach – MA, Intern

verified by Psychology Today

Coping with Stress and Why it is Important to Experience Stress in Relationship

Coping with stress, especially when stress is experienced by each person in a partnership, can seem overwhelming!  Here are some things to know and tips to combat the negativity and brokenness that is sure to come when stress enters into your relationship like a parasite.  If you are thinking that your relationship is a hopeless cause and that it would be easier to just give up altogether in order to reduce the stress you are experiencing, keep trying.  In fact, what you are experiencing may be typical and perhaps even necessary.  Whether you are experiencing a job loss, a move, a long-distance relationship, the loss of a loved one, infidelity, or day-to-day stress such as a busy and draining work schedule, these are all stressors that affect relationships in several ways.

Does Everyone Else Struggle Too?

Yes.  Picking a partner means you are picking an unwritten story which could bring to fruition a slew of ‘fears of the unknown.’  To add to this, you have a story, and they have a story.  When you combine these stories to make it one, there is no telling how it could go.  There are several factors that are added up to combine two stories into one: your family and their family… your cultural background, religious beliefs, values, and theirs… your personal identity and theirs… and the list continues.  All of these factors jammed into one story can bring about a stressful experience and uncomfortable feelings even when the world makes out relationships to be glorious and nothing but amazing.

Yes, relationships can be glorious and amazing… but most of the time, only until you can make it through some stress together to get to the gold.  But try not to let the world confuse and trick you into thinking that you are completely alone in dealing with pitfalls, stress, and sometimes constant negotiation with partners.  These may not mean that you are not compatible with one another.  It may just mean that what you are experiencing is completely congruent with the fact that relationships take work!

Keep in mind that relationships are not as smooth as most of us would like them to be.  There are ‘good times,’ and there are ‘bad times.’  You will experience dry periods and exciting periods.  But even when you are in the valley rather than the peak of your relationship, it is typical to feel stuck.  What you do with this feeling or state of “stuckness” will make all the difference.

How to Handle Stress: Things to Try at Home

  1. Change your personal and relational narrative and perspective on your situation knowing that you have power over your words, thoughts, and actions.
    • Acknowledge what is going right instead of focusing on everything that may be going wrong.
    • Consider what this stressful experience could add to your relationship with lessons or a deeper understanding of one another.
    • Do what you can in the immediate present. If it would help you to organize your physical space to de-clutter both your mind and what you see, do that!
  2. Practice open and honest communication.
    • Express your vulnerabilities so that you can gain a mutual understanding of what each of you is experiencing as a result of the stress.
    • Seek out community support for extra validation and empathy. Advocate for yourself!  As a world-renowned couples therapist, Esther Perel said at The New Yorker Festival, “a cataclysmic event…can destroy you, and the only way you can remember a sense of continuity, a sense of purpose, a sense of connection is by gathering with others.”
  1. Flip the narrative that stress is entirely harmful.
    • Stress can often bring growth and changes that may be necessary to occur.
    • Allow yourself to experience stress rather than resisting it at all costs to live comfortably and perhaps less meaningfully as a result.
  2. Do not lose sight of your partner and the importance of supporting each other.
    • Lean on your partner for support and affirmation. Stress may only be valuable if handled with the backing of someone who cares and can understand.
    • Avoid self-blame or partner-blame because both are useless and essentially wasted energy in the long-term. Stressful events are often out of our control.
  3. Practice healthy emotion regulation and self-care such as mindfulness or breathing exercises. Do what you know will be a productive reset for your mind rather than a maladaptive, short-term escape such as alcohol use, binge-watching TV, or what is widely recognized as ‘stress eating.’
    • Seek out counseling services! A relational therapist can guide you and your partner through stressful events and help you explore what may work for you to cope with stress if you do not already know or practice healthy strategies.
    • Stress can be a uniquely painful experience that needs to be expressed rather than bottled inside. Perel adds that “in terms of healing, what we do know is that pain is universal, but the meaning that we give to our pain, and the way we narrate our pain, is highly cultural and contextual.”
    • Try out Qi Gong

The Effects of Changing Times on Stress

What it means to be in a romantic partnership has changed over the years, which could also be an added stressor in figuring out how to be in a relationship during modern times.  While it is crucial to creating your combined story together, it may also be difficult to simultaneously resist heavy sway from the outside influences of this story.  For example, your parents may want to share their wisdom from their own experience which may or may not be entirely valid or relevant due to the changing times.  On the other hand, you may have aging parents who might expect you to take care of them in their sickness which may have been more common in their lives and less so now.  The best way to cope with such stressors, besides responding as a collaborative team, is to communicate healthy boundaries that fit in the story that you have created together.

We are left to navigate a world that is uncertain due to the radical and rampant changes happening as our society continues to fight for greater equality, desired choices, and freer autonomy.  Where guidelines and ‘norms’ used to be set in place for how to live, we now have a greater opportunity to make decisions that will best-fit our desired lifestyle, both individually and in a relationship.  Because of this, however, we also are expected to be in communication more often than before.  We must now negotiate decisions from how to manage scheduling conflicts to whether or not to have children.  These choices may not have been as prevalent in previous generations because men were more likely to be the sole decision-maker.  We are therefore forced into a new language program: The Rosetta Stone of negotiation and constant communication with partners.  And even more alarming news: we do not have an excuse for not communicating even the minutest details that are now seen as important in a relationship because everyone must be informed so that negotiation can occur if needed.  There are more and more expectations around communication every day due to several factors including the advancement in technology, and it can be stressful to keep up with this at times.

Stress as a Catalyst to Growth in a Relationship

Often, relationships that carry the most profound connection and meaning also hold at least one “dark night” (a term used in the book Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore) that they had to experience and get through together.  Like fire that purifies, relationships must also go through the fire in order to be purified.  From this dark night or stressful event, if embraced and welcomed, partners are then better able to create an atmosphere of vulnerability and trust within their relationship.  Vulnerability and trust, perhaps most easily created by the embrace of a couple’s dark night, are essential virtues for a lasting and meaningful relationship and life together.

On the other hand, perhaps a dark night may be the very sign that a couple is not meant to be together.  In this, their hearts can be purified in preparation for the person they are truly meant to be with if they are able to listen and respond to the message that their dark night brings.  Moore suggests, “Your dark night is forcing you to consider alternatives.  It is taking you out of the active life of submission to alien goals and purposes… You can sit with it and consider who you are and who you want to be.  You can be fortified by it to stand strong in your very existence.  You can be born again, not into an ideology that needs your surrender, but into yourself, your uniqueness, your God-given reality, the life destined for you.”


Podcast: Where Should We Begin? with Esther Perel

Book: Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore

Moore, T. (2012). Dark nights of the soul: A guide to finding your way through life’s ordeals. London: Piatkus Books.

See my Reading Recommendations


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