Relationships under Stress

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I’ve never yet met anyone who has had a stress-free life. Sickness, loss, financial problems, job problems are things that all of us will have to deal with. Yet in reviewing new cases week after week at a mental health center, I’m constantly struck by how often bad luck has played a major part in contributing to people’s psychological problems. If I’d had the same string of experiences, I wonder if I’d be coping as well as my patient.

Cognitively, emotionally, physically, stress can affect our ability to function. Under stress, our judgment is impaired; we have more difficulty assimilating information and correctly sizing up a situation. We can feel depressed, anxious, scared, demoralized. We can get physically ill. Any area of low resistance in one’s body will react in characteristic ways — back, intestines, respiration, circulatory system. People with depression, under stress, become more depressed. And stress is the precipitant to almost all depressive episodes.

A good trusting relationship can be the best vaccine against stress. The couple has the advantage of their unique relationship,which gives them the chance to express their feelings fully in a manner rare, if possible at all, in other relationships. A crisis can, of course, bring up problems that have previously been dormant, or recognized but put aside. Peaceful times can permit a couple to become lazy like this. But when an outside problem erupts, these spouses will find their resources undermined by unresolved difficulties. A tendency to blame others rather than taking responsibility, for instance, may be tolerable when times are smooth, but it may destroy a relationship under stress.

A crisis can be used for positive ends. A couple can use the experience to learn how to work together, to build up credit in trust and reliance, to develop appreciation of each other’s strengths, to realize sincerely how much they need each other, to have the experience of providing support and helping. One thing that helps is just to acknowledge the existence of the stress and that one is in the midst of a stress response. Stress brings chaos and disorganization. When spouses keep this in mind, they can accept that their strong feelings and dramatic reactions are normal responses. They don’t have to be so afraid of losing control. They can say to themselves and each other, “Something terrible is happening to us, and we are having a normal response. Under the circumstances, it is the natural way to feel.”

It is also important to recognize that stress is relative, not objective. What upsets you — for instance, a child’s leaving home — may be relatively unloaded for me; but for you to deal with my job problems might be much more demanding.

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