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Stress Perseverance for Relationships

(Video is Tom the Turtle teaches about Stress Perseverance)

I met a woman the other day who’d told me she was ready to divorce her husband.  They had only been married for two years.  I asked her why she was making this decision and she said he was acting peculiar.  What does peculiar look like?

She said when they first got married he would come home from work and spend time with her.  These days, he comes home late or would call  from work to tell her he was going out with friends or doing community volunteer work.

I asked her if there was legitimate reason for him to work late.  She said yes the reasons for his work lateness were valid.  She didn’t suspect he was being unfaithful.

What was his relationship with his after-work buddies? Were they old friends or new people in his life?  If they were old friends, did he go out with them frequently before they got married?

She answered, that before they got married he regularly went out with his friends after work or spent time volunteering at various organizations.  She married a man who gets a lot of satisfaction and relaxation by being social. After they got married he slowed down his out the home activities. Now he had resumed to pre-marriage arrangements.

I asked if she was a social person.  She said no, she was more of a homebody.  Going out with people was more stress than something she enjoyed.  These days, she much preferred staying home cuddling up with a good book or watching television.  When they were dating, she used to force herself to go out, to be social.  These days it was too much for her to do.

She said she enjoyed helping others and was proud of her husband for his involvement in the community.  She just wished he’d spend more time with her.  I asked if there were any stresses in their lives other than the current relationship issues.  She didn’t think they had any until we talked about stress and what stresses are.

A stress is something in your environment that convinces your body to react as though it’s in danger.  It can be simple things such as new responsibilities at work, changes in your schedule, or ever stimulation such as overcrowding, too much light, too much noise.

Stress can be good, bad or neutral.  Think of Christmas or thanksgiving.  Times that most people consider family time, happy time.  They are; however, very stressful because of extra responsibilities, financial burdens and demands from society and our families.

I think everyone is familiar with bad stress.  We know from the get-go that what we are experiencing does not feel good and we do not see any benefits. That stress quickly causes headaches, muscle tension, irritability and anxiety.  Sometimes they even anger.

Neutral stress typically has the slowest in reactions unless multiple stresses combine.  I often say an example of neutral stress might be going to the grocery store and picking out pickles.  It’s not a matter of life and death deciding on which pickle to buy.  Still, depending on your frame of mind, looking at all those shelves of pickles can become daunting and stressful especially if you are in a hurry.

So getting back to the woman I met, she said yes there were stresses that were new.  She mentioned that the stepson moved into the home five months ago.  He and the family were having a hard time adjusting.  She also mentioned that her elderly father had developed Alzheimer’s and she didn’t know how she would take care of him.  Her mother was deceased and she was an only child.  One top of that she reiterated that both she and her husband had increased stress at work.  Those are definitely very high stresses.

I was shopping at the local grocery when I overheard a couple arguing.  I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop; however, their volume made hearing easy.  The gist of their conversation had similar rings to the woman I met earlier.  In this case it was the man complaining that his significant other was spending too much time away from home.  He went into a long litany of stresses that he had to deal with by himself.  Stresses such as sick kids, a neighbor who is troublesome, stresses of work and work on the house with no money to fix it.  She yelled back about all the stresses of her life.  She stormed about having too much responsibility in the mornings, stepchild not respecting her, her job being difficult and feeling like she had no support from him.

Regardless of any other issues in their relationship, this was clearly another case of a couple responding to the increase in stress in their lives.  Relationships are like trees. When the storm of stress hits it will either bend or snap. All relationships experience stress. You can’t avoid it.

If you start out with the great relationship, increased stress will still put a strain on that relationship.  If you have a mediocre or poor relationship increased stress will make the road will be much rockier and possibly snap the relationship.

The severity of the stress, the couple’s support system and how well they communicate will help determine how strong and healthy their relationship will be after the storm. Therefore, I always tell people they should have stress inoculation.

Each person handles threats in a different way.  You may remember being taught that people either flee, fight, freeze or flop. Stress is experienced in the brain as a threat.

Two people in the same situation may react completely differently than the next. One person in the relationship may need to take more walks or go out with friends more often.  This person is fleeing.  They need to escaping the situation, even if only temporarily.  Going for walks or out with friends is a lot more desirable then leaving the relationship.  That thought is a flee-from-stress thought.  They literally feel if they don’t flee they will be unable to tolerate the situation.

Another person may start arguments, having tantrums, start physical fights when they are stressed.  They may tell you they feel they’re up against the wall and need to react this way to protect themselves.  There really is no physical danger or need for protection, but their biology and past learning convinces them otherwise. These people are the fighters.

The next person will do nothing.  They may literally stand and shut down in front of you.  These people become quiet, withdrawn and can’t handle having confrontations.  The more upsetting the stress around them the more they shut down.  These people are the freezers.

The last way a person can respond to stress is to flop.  Flopping literally means the person falls down or faints.  I don’t see this much as a reaction to severe stress except in situations of sudden stress such as unexpected death or other extreme, emotional shocks.

I believe adrenaline fatigue is an example of flopping when a person experiences a long term stressful environment. It manifests as extreme fatigue sometimes debilitating and the person can’t function.   In time the body wears down and the person gets sick more often and in severe cases can cause or speed the rate of heart disease and death.

So how can a person stress inoculate?

Step one: remember stress happens it’s only a matter of when and what kind.

Step two: know how you react to stress.  Are you a flopper, the fleer, a fighter, or someone who freezes?

Step three: if you’re in a relationship, which of these reactions does your significant other use?

Step four: acknowledge and accept that the way your significant other reacts does not have to be the way you react.

Step five: develop good communication before stress hits.  If you’re already in the stress boat, take a timeout away from home in neutral territory where you can discuss the stress and how it affects each of you.

Step six: do not bring other parties into your conflict.  This is not about he said, she said, he’s bad, she’s bad, I’m right, they’re wrong.  It’s about coping when you’re not your best or when loved ones are not at their best

Step seven: do not make any life changing decisions while under extreme stress unless absolutely necessary.  You’re not in your normal thinking mind.  You’re in survival mode and the part of your brain that deals with rational thinking has taken a side seat to your primitive survival brain.

Step eight: focus your thinking on elements in your life that currently give you joy.  There is no such thing as not having joy.  Joy is a way of looking at elements in your life that bring peace, appreciation, good healthy feelings if viewed in a positive light.  Find it and make it significant.

Step nine: this too shall pass.  The outcome of a stressful event may not be positive but the events unfolding are moving in time as you are.  You’ll either make decisions for change to get in a better place or the events will change and there will be release.

Step 10: after riding that storm of stress, sit down and evaluate how you reacted and how you both reacted as a team.  What worked, what needs tweaked and what needs changed to prepare for the next round.

In the end I’d like to think that most people want their relationships to be healthy, happy and supportive.  Remember you are team. Even if you didn’t say the words, for better or worse, as part of a marriage ceremony or you have a committed relationship of any kind, the intent is implied.  If your relationship starts looking rocky, do a stress evaluation for both of you.  Do it together.  Remember, this too shall pass.