How to survive as a couple when life is a mess

Factors like the source of the conflict and the time spent together can determine how stress affects a relationship. Being aware of the situation and good communication are key to moving forward

Communication is key to relationships.
Communication is key to relationships.Francesco Carta fotografo (Getty Images)

Work overload. The feeling that we just cannot do it all. Health problems, our own or someone else’s. Economic hardships. Situations like these can bring about stress. Almost without realizing it, we suddenly spend weeks or months in a state in which everything overwhelms us, and we become more susceptible and irritable, something that also affects how we relate to the people around us. If you are in a relationship, this incessant stress can feel like a tidal wave.

“Usually, the way things impact the relationship depends on how the couple is doing. If we have a solid relationship, it will have more chances of reaching a resolution, even if it is threatened by different blows,” says clinical psychologist and couples therapist María Pilar Berzosa Grande, lecturer in psychology at the International University of La Rioja, in Spain, where she is also a researcher for the PSICOFAM Group (health, family and couples psychology). This group is currently conducting research on how the pandemic affected relationships, which they hope to publish next year. Berzosa Grande says that one thing they are noticing is that, when assessing the impact and scope of stress, different factors must be taken into account: if the couple has children (and their ages), how long they have been living together or what kind of bond they have. “If a couple has children, for example, they will have less time and opportunity to stop and give themselves a space for communication,” she explains.

The scientific literature explains that stress fills us and can spill over to those close to us. According to a study published in 2012 by the American Psychological Association, when we are highly stressed we lose part of our ability to self-regulate and tend to behave worse with our partner and, in general, value the relationship less. Another study from 2022 focused not on how we behave, but on the things we notice about the other person during those times of stress: they analyzed 79 newly married couples and found that, under stress, they tended to notice their partners’ flaws more. They continued to see the virtues, but also the negative traits that went unnoticed on calm days.

Berzosa Grande explains that discerning between sources of stress is of utmost importance. “Health problems, losing a job... The closer in time and space the stressful problem is, the greater the impact will be,” she points out. How destabilizing that particular problem is for the couple also matters. “If the source of stress is, say, that one of them has become unemployed, which is something that many couples may be experiencing right now, it will affect the mood and the relationship. But if that is also affecting their quality of life because they had obligations that they now cannot pay for, for example, the impact will be greater.”

The same is true of external sources of stress, such as inflation, the instability triggered by the war in Ukraine and pandemic fatigue. Everything matters: how the situation affects them, their bond and the personality of each one, among other factors. In fact, explains Berzosa Grande, some couples can stick together and become closer as a result of these kinds of things.

Along the same lines, a study published in June 2021 concluded that during the Covid-19 health crisis, many couples managed to survive precisely because the reason of their stress was clear: it was not the person they shared their lives with, but the situation. The stress remained, but it was not aimed at the other so much. The fault lied with Covid-19, something that the media constantly reminded people of. Knowing this, being aware that a stress exists and what its source is, can help couples face it better.

Communication is key

Being able to stop and communicate is also crucial. Ana García Mañas, director of the specialization in sexual and couples therapy at the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM), explains strategies that can help address the crisis “without making things worse.” First of all, she points out that it is necessary to “increase the level of awareness of the emotions and the situation;” that is, that each one recognizes and takes into account their needs, as well as those of the other. To give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling, express it without hurting, and ask for what is needed.

Additionally, “even though when we are overwhelmed it is very difficult for us to see a way out, it is important to keep in mind that the situation will not be like this forever.” Thus, thinking about short, medium and long-term strategies can help. “Everything changes, and we can agree on deadlines to make the changes that we consider necessary. That way, we give our partner time so that they can compose themselves and adapt to the new situation.”

Moreover, she explains, it is also essential not to fall into what studies say we tend to do when we are stressed: blaming and judging. “We must remember that a couple is made up by two different people who act according to their own values, emotions, history... and that we cannot change that. What we can choose is who we want to share our path with and the limits that we set in order to be able to be in that relationship. And we can do this from a place of love and respect, both for the other person and for our own needs,” notes García Mañas. Finally, when nothing else works, therapy is also a useful resource.

María Pilar Berzosa Grande also recommends couples therapy, but adds that prevention is very important. “Couples go to therapy when they are near the end, almost done, and nothing has been prevented. People take better care of their car than their relationship,” she says.

To maintain effective communication, even when struggling with the turmoil of daily life, the expert suggests taking advantage of technology. “Technoference [the interference of technology] is detrimental, but studies also indicate that if it is used appropriately, technology can invigorate a couple. For example, if you are not going to see each other until dinner time, stimulating WhatsApp messages can help. Knowing how to use technologies in favor of the relationship can truly help us be connected,” she says.

In short, it is a matter of devoting time and, if we don’t have much of it, trying to make it quality time. “We have to find a moment to solve the conflicts caused by the disagreement – which will always exist. And you also have to know how to have moments of tenderness, in addition to knowing how to manage coexistence. These may be very basic things, but our hectic lifestyle prevents us from doing so. If on top of that we have agitated periods like in recent times, the couple enters a vortex of stress and may not realize that satisfying these things is essential. They seem inconsequential,” she explains.

Both experts insist that the effects of the stress, and the strategies to manage it, will depend on the circumstances and personalities of each couple. “There are many types of couples. Couples who don’t look after something or someone, who don’t live together or don’t share their incomes or are not monogamous may be less vulnerable to some of these sources of stress,” says Ana García Mañas. However, Berzosa Grande points out an essential starting point: “You have to want to be together as a couple. From there and with communication as a pillar, there will be more chances of surviving the turbulence.”

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