Mandy* knew it would be a tense evening with her husband, John. His jaw was clenched, and he was in a cantankerous mood, which would lead to a stressful marriage moment.
“What’s wrong with you?” Mandy complained. “I had a hard day with the kids, and I don’t need your grumpy mood.”
“Try going through a day with my boss,” John snapped. “Besides, you’re always complaining about being tired, and you’re the one who wanted another kid. Why can’t I just come home to a wife who has some energy and is happy to see me?”
“Maybe if you came home with a smile and offered a little help, I’d be happy to see you,” Mandy said.
John’s eyes flashed with anger. Mandy could see him trying to hold back. If she kept going, if she said one more word, John would explode.
It’s not worth it, she thought. It’s best just to ignore him.
She could feel herself emotionally detach, and a heavy numbness settled over her. She turned her back to John and heard him stomp out of the room.
Mandy and John had let the daily stress of life drive a wedge in their relationship. It’s a common scenario. Stress causes many couples to forget that they are supposed to be on the same team.
When is the last time you felt stressed in your marriage? What were you feeling in that situation? Maybe you felt anxious, misunderstood, frustrated, sad, overwhelmed or unappreciated. How you handle stress will have a huge impact on your marriage.
Most often, individuals come into adulthood with a “stress response” they learned in childhood. Some people learned from their parents’ example to recognize, name and manage difficult emotions. As adults, they are aware of a wide range of emotions and feel free to express those emotions to their spouse. They can ask for help when experiencing stress but aren’t overwhelmed by stress because they have tools to deal with unpleasant feelings. And when their spouse’s behavior causes stress in marriage, they can inquire and discover the unpleasant emotions underlying the spouse’s behavior and offer compassion, help and support instead of reacting in a negative way.
Most people, however, are more like John and Mandy, who struggle to manage their stresses in marriage effectively. And unmanaged stress in one spouse usually escalates stress in the other. The most common reactions to stress are fleeing, fighting or freezing. But reactions can be more complex:
- Fleeing might include dismissing negative emotions or coping by distracting oneself or concentrating on work.
- People who try to fix negative emotions in others by being nice are usually anxious and momentarily freeze when other people are angry or stressed. They might try to manage their spouse’s emotions to keep their own anxiety in check.
- Some people react to stress in marriage by complaining and protesting.
- Other people become angry or numb.
John becomes angry and frustrated at work and expects his wife to help manage his marriage stress by creating an ideal home environment. Mandy fights back but gives up and detaches just before an eruption. She avoids John and doesn’t have the skills to engage with him on an emotional level. John cannot identify the more vulnerable feelings underneath his anger and ask for help or comfort for his difficulties at work or the stress in their marriage.
In my own marriage, it took me years to notice that my husband, Milan, cleaned when he was highly stressed. He was trying to “be nice.” We finally realized that this was his childhood response to his parents’ anger. Cleaning was an attempt to help bring his parents back to a peaceful state. We gradually learned how to respond more effectively to each other by using the Comfort Circle, which has four steps:
1. Seek self-awareness and other-awareness
Contemplate which behaviors are most common for you and your spouse in response to stress. Make a list of those responses. Does stress cause either of you to detach and withdraw? Protest? Clean? Become controlling? Become numb? Sleep? Use addictive behaviors, such as playing video games, drinking alcohol, viewing pornography or eating junk food? All these can be attempts to rid yourself of difficult emotions.
Pick the most common stress response for you and your spouse. When you notice this behavior, acknowledge the likely presence of difficult emotions.
2. Engage to explore marriage stressors
Ask your spouse to share with you about his or her stress. For example, Mandy could say to John, “You seem like you had a hard day and you’re stressed. Let’s talk about it and see if I can help.”
If you’re having a hard day, ask your spouse to listen to you.
3. Explore and find out more about marriage stressors
The goal for this step is to listen. Be curious to find out what’s happening inside your spouse. Hand the list of ”soul words” (see below) to your spouse and ask, “Can you pick three feelings that would describe what’s inside you right now? I want to understand what you’re going through and find out how I can help you feel better. What happened that caused these emotions?”
Try not to fix or problem-solve, but have empathy for what your spouse is feeling. Name and validate the painful emotions: “John, you feel frustrated, anxious and overwhelmed when your boss is critical. That would be hard to experience day after day.”
Here is a great statement to take the conversation a bit deeper and explore your spouse’s stress: “Tell me more.” This invites further dialogue. “John, I’m sorry you have to face those painful emotions every day. Tell me more about the experiences you have with your boss.”
Many times, just acknowledging the presence of difficult emotions and being a compassionate listener lightens the mood.
Consider whether a parent, sibling or other significant person caused similar feelings in your spouse when he or she was growing up. If you don’t know much about your spouse’s history, inquire if there is a similarity: “John, I know your dad was really critical. Do you think you have some of the same feelings about your boss that you experienced toward your dad when you were young?”
Current stressors in marriage can trigger past pain. Most often, people don’t realize there is a connection. Offering comfort for past hurts can help reduce how much those painful emotions bleed into the present.
4. Resolve stress in marriage
After listening, ask, “How can I help?” In most situations, you have the ability to do something to improve the situation. Perhaps your spouse needs some time alone to rest after an emotionally exhausting conversation. Maybe he would like to celebrate the progress you’re making in your relationship. She might need to be held. He may want you to acknowledge that you play some role in the problem or to apologize. Maybe she wants you to pray for her. In some instances, your attentive listening and empathy were all that your spouse needed.
Resolution and relief can take many forms. And you don’t have to anticipate what your husband or wife really needs, you simply have to ask.
The Comfort Circle in practice to reduce marriage stress
Recently Milan and I explained the Comfort Circle to Gavin and Shelly during a counseling session. Then Shelly expressed one of her recurring frustrations to Gavin: “You’re always complaining and leaving me with a pile of feelings to manage.”
“You’re always avoiding problems,” Gavin said.
Both argued their points for several minutes before we stopped the dialogue and asked Gavin to use the Comfort Circle to find out more about Shelly’s feelings.
Gavin handed Shelly the list of soul words. “Pick three feelings you experience when I complain,” he said.
Shelly reviewed the list.
“Overwhelmed, anxious and burdened,” she said.
Gavin replied, “So when I complain, you feel overwhelmed, anxious and burdened. What happens when you feel this way?”
“I get a stomachache, and I try to end the conversation before it gets loud and intense,” Shelly said. “Even when I leave the room, I still have this pile of feelings inside, and I don’t know what to do.”
Gavin looked stuck. “I don’t know what to ask next,” he said.
“Most repetitive fights have a childhood root,” I explained. “Ask Shelly if she ever felt overwhelmed, anxious and burdened as a child.”
“Did you feel these same feelings growing up?” Gavin asked.
A look of recognition flickered across Shelly’s face. “All the time,” she said. “Mom would complain, and Dad would get angry. They fought a lot, and I would get a stomachache and go to my room, but I could still hear them yelling. I was left with this pile of feelings inside, and I didn’t know what to do. Oh my, I never realized the connection.”
Gavin’s eyes widened, and he leaned back in his chair. “So when I complain or want to solve a problem, you feel like you did as a little girl and you want to get away from me. Wow, I never knew that.” Gavin turned toward us and asked, “How do we change that?”
“These are often uncomforted wounds,” Milan explained. “Shelly needs comfort for those painful experiences, and comfort brings healing. In addition, you can make a request rather than a complaint. If you need to solve a problem, try to see the ‘historical’ Shelly. You could remind her that you don’t want to fight and you don’t want her stomach to hurt. A quiet tone of voice with an extra dose of gentleness will help her stay engaged.”
Shelly agreed. “Now that I understand why I feel this way,” she said, “I think it will help a lot. All those ideas would be very supportive, too.”
Just like Shelly and Gavin, Milan and I had to learn to stay in the listener role, ask good questions and explore our personal histories. We are so grateful we pushed through the discomfort of discussing our emotions in order to experience growth in our marriage. Learning to connect on an emotional level in response to difficult emotions has created a bond we cherish.
Soul Words to reduce stress in your marriage
As you talk about stress in marriage with your spouse, this list can help you identify emotions you’re experiencing.
* Names have been changed to protect their identities.