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Health and Wellbeing

08 May 2018

Stress in relationships:the sources and the antidotes

Stress in relationships

The reality is, even the most successful and enduring relationships have stress and conflict. Now although it is normal to have some relationship stress during times of change, transition, and of course as a result of the daily grind, some of us unfortunately experience our relationship itself as an added stress in our lives.

Something that creates stress with a lot of the couples I see is the way they manage conflict between them. I always tell couples: it is not the appearance of conflict, but rather how it is managed that predicts the success or failure of a relationship. I use the word “manage” because relationship conflict is actually really natural and has functional, positive qualities.

The “Four Horsemen”

The first step in effectively managing conflict is to identify the four horsemen when they arrive in your conflict discussions. The four horsemen are particularly negative behaviours, that if allowed to run rampant, can be lethal to a relationship.

1. Criticism:  Making negative judgments or proclamations about your partner in extreme, absolute terms and attacking the character of your partner.  For example: “You never think about anyone but yourself!” or “You are always so stubborn!”

2. Contempt: Treating your partner with disrespect, disgust, condescension, or ridicule and involves statements that come from a relative position of superiority. For example: using sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour. 

3. Defensiveness: Making excuses to avoid taking responsibility or for self-protection, or even deflecting blame onto your partner as a result of feeling criticised or attacked. Defensiveness is often a way of saying: “the problem is you, not me” and can make your partner feel unheard, hopeless and even angry, and escalates the conflict further. For example: “you’ve got the issue, so you fix it” or “It’s not my fault that we’re always late, it’s your fault.”

4. Stonewalling: Withdrawing from the conversation either emotionally and/or physically by putting up a metaphorical wall between you and your partner and distancing yourself. Stonewalling is sometimes the result of an overwhelming accumulation of the last three horsemen, and often results in the receiving partner feeling rejected, abandoned and unsupported. For example: abruptly leaving the conversation without telling your partner where you are going or giving your partner the “silent treatment” during or after a conflict.

The antidotes

1. Criticism: Complain without blame. Talk about your feelings using “I” statements and then express a positive need. What do you feel? What do you need?  “I’m feeling left out by our talk tonight. Can we please talk about my day?” or “I feel lonely when you come home three hours late from work”. Also try and be as specific as possible as opposed to making sweeping statements: “I feel neglected when you don’t run important financial decisions by me” rather than “you are so inconsiderate!”

2. Contempt: build a culture of fondness and admiration. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities and find gratitude for the actions they do for you/they way they make you feel when things are good.

3. Defence: Listen. Is there any grain of truth to what your loved one is saying? Accept some responsibility, even if only for part of the conflict.

4. Stonewalling: Practice physiological self-soothing. The first step here is to stop the conflict discussion. If you keep going, you’ll find yourself exploding at your partner or imploding (stonewalling). So- let your partner know that you’re feeling flooded and need to take a break. Take at least 15-20 minutes, since it will be this long before your body physiologically calms down. It’s crucial that during this time you avoid thoughts of righteous indignation (“I don’t have to take this anymore”) and innocent victimhood (“Why is she always picking on me?”). Spend your time doing something soothing and distracting, like listening to music or exercising.

Rajna Bogdanovic - Clinical Psychologist


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