It had been a long week of work deadlines, unexpected car repairs, grumpy kids and more. Rita was looking forward to a relaxing dinner out with just she and her husband, Pete.
Unfortunately, that was not to be.
Pete's meeting ran late and traffic was slow. When he finally walked into the restaurant and joined Rita, he looked stiff and tightly wound. After the server got his order wrong, Pete broke. He began to shout and scream at the mortified young man who made the mistake. Pete demanded to talk to the restaurant manager and caused a huge scene.
Rita wanted to crawl under the table and hide. This behavior wasn't like Pete. He got angry every once in awhile, but big outbursts were rare for him.
During the car ride home, Rita felt annoyed and embarrassed. Even though she was well aware of how stressful things have been for both of them lately, she thought that Pete overreacted. Frankly, his rage frightened her.
Now, she wants to support Pete and to stay connected as a couple, but she doesn't know how. She worries that the next time he loses it, she'll be the target.
Have you ever been in a situation like this?
You know that your partner has had a difficult day, week, month or year and he or she snaps. The stress becomes too much and the one you love suddenly looks like an out of control monster!
The frustration and anger pours out of your partner and it might even seem to be directed at you.
Your goal is to keep your relationship healthy and loving...even during stressful times. The trick is how to effectively do that.
Secure your own oxygen mask first.
When challenges come up in your mate's life and stress builds, you're affected too. Even if it's not your boss who is being a jerk, for instance, because you care so much about your partner, you feel some of the strain and pain too.
Adding to this empathy effect is the fact that you most likely lead a busy and stress-filled life of your own. Regardless of how different your responsibilities and activities are from your partner's, you've got your own trials in life.
In order to boost resilience to stress in your relationship, you absolutely have to care of yourself first.
It's exactly like the emergency instructions on an airplane. “Secure your own oxygen mask first and then help those around you.”
You won't be able to truly support your partner if you are just as strung out and strained as he or she is.
Get into the habit of identifying what your specific needs are when you feel tense. If this is difficult for you to do, make a list of possibly soothing and nurturing self-care actions and take out this list when you feel the first signs of stress in your own body. Pick something from the list and do it.
This could be as simple as taking a 10 minute break to sit quietly and just breathe. It might be drinking a big glass of water instead of another cup of coffee. It may be to pick up the phone and schedule a massage for yourself.
This is not being selfish! Taking care of yourself first merely means that you will be coming to your stressed-out partner with a sense of calm and clarity that he or she can't access in that moment.
Don't take your partner's freak out personally.
If you make your partner's anger, withdrawal, coldness or tension about you, it's not going to help anyone. When you take it personally, you're more likely to be defensive or to join your partner in a stressed out state of mind.
It's nearly impossible to find solutions and improvement when you “go there” too. When you feel yourself starting to join in with your partner's freak out, it's time to pause, breathe and re-group.
By all means, take responsibility for your role in a situation that may be upsetting your partner. If you've made a mistake, own it. Be sincere and apologize for your share of whatever happened and then focus on finding a way to turn the situation around.
Know when to give space and when to get closer.
Another key to being resilient to stress in your relationship is to make this vital determination...
Figure out when your partner needs you to step back and give him or her space and know when your partner needs you close and involved. This isn't always easy to figure out and sometimes your best bet is to ask.
You could say something like, “How can I help?” or “I'd like to support you and don't know what you need from me. Can you give me some suggestions?”
Next, really listen and honor what your partner say he or she needs.
If space is what your partner requests, take that time to give yourself the self-care you need to calm down so that when your partner is open to your involvement, you can truly be helpful.
Susie and Otto Collins are relationship coaches and authors who help couples communicate, connect and create the relationship they desire. Click here to get their free ebook, Passionate Heart-Lasting Love.