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Talk your way out of relationship stress

  • Published
  • By Capt. John Wardburton
  • 43rd Medical Operations Squadron
There are many important aspects of stress -- the various sources of stress we all encounter, the impact that this stress can have on our lives and ways to establish solid routines for effectively managing stress. No matter what area of life we're talking about, however, there is often no greater stress than the stress created by other people. And unfortunately, these other people are usually the ones that are closest to us -- the ones we care about, spend time with, and rely on for support. 

Think about your life for a moment. What's the maddest you've ever been? When have you totally felt like blowing up? Where were you when the stress hit its all-time peak? For most people, a spouse or partner was part of it. 

It is no surprise that the people we care most about can arouse the biggest reaction. When one individual's life and happiness are so intensely tied to interactions with one other individual, even slight disagreements and arguments can carry huge ramifications for each. Disagreements can quickly devolve into epic struggles that create stress and exacerbate existing stress in the lives of each individual. 

Minimizing such struggles, on the other hand, may go a long way toward minimizing stress and enhancing stress-management capabilities. Communication is often the key.

 No matter what the source of stress in your life, the better you communicate with your spouse or significant other, the more effectively you'll be able to manage that stress. Not only does effective communication decrease the level of stress created by a relationship, it can also foster a more supportive bond that helps both partners cope with stress from other sources. 

Unfortunately, there is no one right way to communicate with a partner, there is no magic formula, and there is no way to be perfect. In fact, arguments will occur, and should be an important part of any relationship. Perfection is not the goal. Effectiveness is. So try out the following strategies to improve the effectiveness of communication in your relationship: 

Plan ahead
Communicating is a two-person activity. If you and your partner agree on how it should go, it will work better. During a nice, calm conversation, discuss and agree to work together when an argument or disagreement arises. Then, when an argument or disagreement arises (and it will)... 

Take a minute to prepare
Actually, take fifteen minutes to prepare. If either person feels upset, call a time-out and separate from each other. But (and here's the most important part) both of you must agree to return for a calmer discussion in exactly fifteen minutes. Set a timer if you have to. Research has conclusively demonstrated that people are incapable of logical discussion when emotions, heart rate, and physiological arousal are high. Fifteen minutes lets it subside, and sets you up for a more effective discussion. To make it even better, use some of the relaxation strategies introduced in previous articles. Take a few deep breaths, and then... 

Speak assertively
Ever had a lot to say, but been unable to make a coherent thought come out? Me, too. Everybody has. The following pattern can help you convey your thoughts to your partner in a straightforward and logical manner: "I feel ___ when ___ happens. I would like ___." It seems simple, but this does take some practice. The ultimate goal is to be Honest, Appropriate, Respectful, and Direct. It may be "HARD," but such an approach allows both partners in a discussion to accurately convey their point of view. Then, the other person just has to... 

Listen actively
Ever talked yourself blue in the face and then gotten "the blank and uncomprehending stare" from your significant other? Me, too (once again). 

Most would agree that this feels pretty insulting, so it should come as no surprise that one of the main reasons arguments escalate is that one or both partners does not feel that they are being heard. The random nod every 30 seconds doesn't cut it (in fact, this may be construed as the dreaded falling-asleep-head-bob)! Your partner needs to know that you heard what was just said. So demonstrate this by reflecting back: "I hear you saying that you feel ___ when ___ happens." Then it's your turn to speak assertively (see above). All of this has a good chance of making communication go more smoothly, but only if you remember what your kindergarten teacher told you, so... 

Take turns
It sounds like an easy rule to remember, but this is not always a simple task in the middle of an emotionally-charged argument. Following the advice above and using the patterns provided can make this requirement much easier, but some couples may even find it helpful to pass an object back and forth to signify who has "the floor" at any given moment. 

If agreement of both partners can be reached on how these strategies are implemented, attempts at effective communication will work. 

It takes appropriate planning, practice, perseverance, and patience. Try it out today by having a good discussion with your partner, and then see if you can communicate more effectively during future arguments. Remember: If you continue to argue the way you always have, you'll continue to get the results you've always gotten. Try something new today for a less stressful tomorrow.