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How to Handle Stress in Relationships

In my relationship coaching with couples, one of the most common complaints that I hear from men and women is that they feel criticized and unappreciated by their partner. Many of their partner's behaviors help create this experience, some subtle and some not so subtle: negative comments, disapproval, reprimands, fault-finding, rolling of eyes, criticism, nagging, solving problems, offering advice, or questioning their partner's actions and decisions. However, recent brain research indicates that men are more vulnerable to complaints and criticism from their partner than women are. Surprising, right?

Stressed couple angry and in conflict with each other

The Differences between Male and Female Brains

We often assume that women are emotionally more sensitive and more susceptible to criticism than men. Recent studies find many differences between male and female brains. It turns out that men are highly stressed when their partner is unhappy, and therefore, complaints or criticisms are very taxing. For men, making a difference in their partner's life isn't just a nice idea; having their partner happy actually serves as a testosterone stimulant.

Most men will tell you that their aim in their relationship is to make their woman happy. It is a great surprise to me when women not only don't know this but actually feel their happiness isn't a priority to their partner. The difference in how men and women respond to stress may help to explain this miscommunication.
A young couple connecting while on a computerWhen women are stressed, they need nurturing, and they recharge by talking to a good listener. When men are stressed, they need to go into their cave (typically alone) by tinkering on an engine of a car, watching television, reading the newspaper, or recharging by accomplishing something. One of the last things men want to do when they need a recharge is to sit around and chat. Plus, guess what women tend to do when they get overwhelmed and frazzled without anyone to listen? Yep. Complain and criticize. See the difficulty brewing with this dynamic?

What Creates Stress and Strain in a Relationship?

If your partner starts feeling like they need a hard hat from the onslaught of negativity, it's time to reconsider how you're interacting as a couple. Learning—and practicing—to resolve conflict and communicate in more positive ways is often very helpful. However, in our hectic lives, it is common for both partners to be overwhelmed and stressed at the same time.

Since men and women need different things to de-stress, a conflict can ensue when there is stress at work, or if one or both are stressed in their relationship. The key to reaching more understanding at this tense time is to honor each other's different needs. Both need the support of their partner in getting their specific needs met—just in different ways.

Related reading: "Know the Difference Between Chronic vs Healthy Stress"

A stressed married couple in an argument and in an impasse

Do you have unmet needs competing with your partner's needs?

Where couples often err is on the receiving end of each other's behavior. Many people personalize the behavior of their partner and react in an attempt to defend their own needs. But what if you didn't personalize your partner's behavior? Consider seeing negative, and sometimes hurtful, behavior as a signal that your partner has an unmet need.

For example, if stress is building, your partner may have the need to relax and regroup or the need to be nurtured. If we depersonalize our partner's behavior and encourage them to get their needs met instead of playing tug-of-war with needs, a quick resolution is possible. This caring response will allow both to recharge quicker, reconnect with each other sooner, and create more loving relationships.

Related reading: "Best Marriage Advice: Depersonalize Your Partner's Behavior."

Heart stoplights in red, yellow, and green representing flow in relationships.Imagine you're driving along at a nice speed and suddenly you have to screech to a halt at a stoplight just as it turns red. If you're in a hurry, you might curse in frustration, but no matter how you respond, you cannot change the color of the light. Depersonalizing your partner's behavior is similar to realizing you can't change a red light. No matter how hard we may try, we cannot change or control another's behavior or make them feel differently than they do.

What we can control is our response to another's behavior. We can depersonalize the behavior so it doesn't trigger us.

Our true power to influence our partner in a positive way lies in choosing to respond lovingly rather than react impulsively.

Is this easy? Not at first. Does it take effort, practice, and perseverance? Yes. Is it worth it? Depends on how important that person is to you and how much you value the relationship. The good news is: If you apply this simple strategy regularly, it gets easier and more natural. And your relationship becomes increasingly connected, fun, and meaningful. And as you practice, you become more skilled with conflict resolutions each time.

Related reading: "The Cost of Impulsivity and Emotional Triggers and Why Emotional Intelligence Will Help You!"

Even though men's brains may get more stressed than women's when their partner is unhappy, it doesn't mean that it's a one-way street. Women have a high need to feel heard and appreciated in a relationship. However, men and women both have needs and both want to feel heard and appreciated. We all get stressed, and we all need understanding.

Work together to ensure that the needs of both of you are met so you're at your best in your relationship. Then your relationship will grow stronger and thrive!

Related reading: "Love Is a Choice—Best Marriage Advice!"

Learn the keys to resolving conflict and how to handle relationship problems effectively, email jennifer@heartmanity.com for support and marriage advice. We love shifting conflict to understanding and helping to disperse the clouds that can block a couple's love.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity FounderJennifer A. Williams / Heartmanity Founder
Jennifer, as the Heartmanity Founder, has coached couples for over two decades. With her extensive experience and vast knowledge of emotional intelligence and brain science, Jennifer provides profound insights. She specializes in communication and teaches EQ skills needed to create healthy relationships. Jennifer is happily married and the mother of three grown children who are incredible human beings.

Posted in Love, Marriage, and Relationships

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