We all go through times of stress in our lives. When you're in the midst of difficulties, it can seem like the difficulty is all you can see. It can be equally challenging when the one you love is going through a tough time. Your partner may withdraw from you, lash out at you, or vacillate between these two responses. Needless to say, none of this is conducive to you two staying connected.
You probably want to be of support to your stressed out partner-- but perhaps you don't know how best to do this. Or it could be that your attempts to help all seem to backfire and only add to the tension. Pretty soon you may feel stressed out along with your mate which can fuel resentment and frustration for both of you.
Brian has had a really rough year. His job has been pegged for elimination in his company's downsizing plans, his mother has experienced a string of serious illnesses, and his son from his first marriage has been getting into fights at school. Terri, his current partner, is feeling more and more irritated with how Brian is dealing with these stresses. His responses tend to be withdrawing into himself, except when he has a meltdown and yells around at anyone in the same room with him-- this usually includes Terri. She tries to keep in mind the multiple strains pulling on him, but it's getting hard for Terri to stay patient and always be the “stable one.”
If your partner is stressed out for whatever reason, try these 4 tips to stay connected...
Tip #1: Don't take it personally.
It is an easy trap to fall into. When the one you love is out of sorts, you might be tempted to wonder what you did to “cause” this reaction or off mood. If you tend to take it personally when your partner is stressed out, just stop right there! It won't help either of you if you try to take responsibility for how another person feels-- even this one you love so much.
To move toward connection, we encourage you to clearly and honestly look at your potential role in contributing to your mate's tension-- but don't take it on! You could ask your mate if there is something you could do differently that would help ease his or her stress, but keep reminding yourself that ultimately this is about your partner, and not you.
On the other hand, be sure to set boundaries if your mate seems to be taking his or her frustrations out on you. No matter what's happening in another person's life, it is not ok for you to be the “punching bag”-- symbolically and, most especially, literally.
Tip #2: Don't try to “fix it” for your mate.
Watching Brian suffer through all of these difficulties has been painful for Terri. She would like nothing more than to “fix it” all for him. In fact, Terri has been asking around about a new job for Brian. She wants to solve at least one of his problems. Of course, there's nothing wrong with helping your partner out with a job search, for example-- but make sure that he or she wants your help. Sometimes our best intentions to help can backfire contributing to feelings of powerlessness, being controlled or not being trusted in the person we are trying to help.
You can certainly support your partner in resolving a problem. But when it comes right down to it, you cannot take on and solve another person's dilemmas. For an effective, lasting solution that feels empowering to the primary person involved, the issue has to be figured out by him or her.
Tip #3: Ask how your partner wants to be supported.
Ask your love how he or she would like to be supported right now. Don't ask from a place of pity or as if your mate is a victim. Instead, acknowledge what is going on and then communicate that you will help as best you can depending on what he or she requests. It might be that the way your love wants to be supported is completely different from the way you like to be supported. Listen and respect those differences.
When Terri asks Brian how she can support him, he requests that she stop trying to find him a new job and, instead, help with his mother. He has been helping care for her during her recovery and is feeling overwhelmed and drained. Brian explains that he is uncomfortable with Terri's job locating efforts, but would like assistance with his mother. Terri agrees to take a home cooked meal to Brian's mother once a week and to visit with her as well. This contribution makes Terri feel good and helps to lighten Brian's responsibilities so that he can focus more time on his job search.
Tip #4: Allow space.
Many times the best way to ease tension and stay connected with your partner is to allow space. If you've ever felt out of sorts-- and we all probably have-- it's likely that the last thing you wanted was someone hovering over you.
Allowing space when your love is stressed out does not mean you are abandoning him or her. By all means, let your partner know that you are available with a shoulder to cry on, a compassionate listening ear, or whatever you are willing to offer. But then back away and let your mate make his or her own choices about the next desired steps.
The more empowered your partner feels during times of stress, the more likely it is that he or she will move through these difficult times to ease. We encourage you to “be there” for your love by giving him or her the gift of space and support as requested.