It stands to reason that, as a married couple, you each have a different stress response.
For example, you might call me a “jumper.” And I can’t help it, people. If someone sneaks up on me (see also: ornery husband), the sneak-er can expect a visible and audible reaction. Something articulate, like “Gaaaaaah!”
In light of this, I invite you to envision one peaceful summer afternoon, my husband and I sitting at a stoplight, windows rolled down. Picture, also, the important detail of a large, diesel flatbed truck outside said window.
Truck backfires. Wife nearly launches through windshield, her own scream a trusty sidekick. Husband says absolutely nothing. Light turns green.
Husband, calmly: “That scared the tar out of me.”
I wish I could tell you this is an anomaly, that I am calm and collected in the face of stress—like an action movie heroine, cheek kissed by a light smudge of ash from a recent explosion. Yet I more often resemble the animated version of Chicken Little.
But like my husband’s calmness, there are positives to many of the (actual) ways I handle relationship stress, falling skies excluded.
When your stress response looks nothing like your spouse’s
You and your spouse, too, are likely different in your stress responses.
Your stressed self (or your spouse) might be strained or laissez-faire. Lacking resilience or powering through. Curt … or extremely verbal. Dominant or passive. Motivated or indulgent.
When it comes to COVID-19, the whole world is operating out of the stressed version of itself. You’re both homebound with kids sparring in the next room, perhaps one of your jobs hanging on by dental floss, and the whole house is suddenly sprouting dirty cups left out by “Not Me.”
How can you leverage relationship stress to draw you together as a team?
1. Know thy stress response (and thy spouse’s).
Remember how the Bible mentions “a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17)? Marriages with depth and layers of fierce love are those who’ve encountered the tough stuff together.
Your spouse is your chosen partner in the foxhole. Yes, they’re far from perfect; he or she may occasionally want to dissolve in a pint of Häagen-Dazs, or perceive your family is better run as a regiment.
But this partner is yours. And your individual stress response can either clash with your spouse’s or strengthen it.
Ask each other questions about your go-to patterns in relationship stress—sift out what works and what doesn’t.
- How do I know when you’re stressed, and vice versa? (Tip: Talk about these graciously.)
- What are our go-to cycles of relating in stress? (You don’t talk; I don’t listen. You eat chips; I work until long after the kids are asleep. You get critical; I get insecure …)
- What do we dislike about “us” when we’re stressed? How do our weaknesses tend to create friction?
- How do our individual stress responses bring strength to our relationship?
2. Remember neither your spouse nor your stress is your enemy.
You might associate stress with weakness, imperfection, or failure. Neediness. Irrationality or instability. Failing to have “joy” or gratitude. Yet identifying stress means you can manage stress before your stress manages you … and the people you love.
In truth, sometimes a stress response produces our most resilient, beautiful, driven, and courageous versions of ourselves. And identifying it can help keep us from its inevitable vulnerability: the tunnel vision, reactionary tendencies, or undue gravity given to our emotions.
God has beautifully crafted our bodies and minds to succeed in stressful situations. Scientifically, those who believe stress is good for us actually live longer.
When we see our bodies’ stress responses as helpful (“My heart is pounding. My body is rising to this challenge.”), we actually become physically healthier. As a bonus, the stress hormone oxytocin also encourages us to reach out to connect with others emotionally.
But sometimes relationship stress leads us to question our spouse and our marriage: Did I even marry the right person? Would I be happier if I weren’t with you? Are we a good match? Are we going to get through this? Should I think about getting out?
Questions like those don’t lead us to be more married, more of a team. They don’t lead us to “unity of mind” (1 Peter 3:8). They lead us further apart.
Instead, ask How is my spouse noble in the ways he or she is rising to this challenge?
3. Partner with your spouse through deeper understanding
Rather than seeing your spouse as the problem in relationship stress—making this you vs. me—turn this into us vs. the problem.
- What’s one tangible way I can help you cope?
- How can I help you steer clear of that place where your coping mechanisms are unhelpful?
- How can I be a “safe place” for you?
- What’s one way I make you suffer the consequences of my stress?
- If you were to write a “stress-relief prescription” of activities for me, what would be on it?
- What lies do we each tend to believe when we’re stressed? (I’m powerless. If people don’t think well of me, I’m nothing.) What truth can I remind you of when you’re in those dark places?
4. Choose to love who you are together
Stress has a way of messing with perspective. Our heightened senses may sap resilience, create over-sensitivity, and naturally make us more defensive.
That is to say, stress carries the ability to isolate.
Sometimes my stress response turns me into a stubborn little kid holding onto her kickball. My way! You’re not playing right!
Yet I wonder if sometimes the curse of sin is not most steadily turned back in little moments—moments when no one sees what we lay down, resist, or overcome. That swallowed sarcasm or offer of genuine kindness to someone who’s snubbed or shamed us. Or that affectionate, gracious word when we’d rather emotionally vacate.
I wonder how much we overcome in small, unseen confrontations of the soul. Because isn’t that what Jesus did for us—reaching out in love when we were His enemies (Romans 5:8)?
Sure, you might not feel it at first. But sometimes it’s amazing how our hearts follow an act of love; the blessing God’s Spirit empowers us to return for an insult, as Jesus did (1 Peter 3:9).
Though it may be the last thing you want to do when stressed—consider reaching out with a date-in. Or rub your spouse’s shoulders (even when a teensy part of you wants to slap those same shoulders). Or take a minute to compliment something your spouse has handled well this week, even if it seems small.
(If you’re needing a jumpstart, check out God’s seven radical promises in Revelation 2 to the one who overcomes.)
A prayer to overcome
Yes, adversity is real and strong. Your stress response is real. (Sometimes it makes you want to jump through a windshield.)
But do you really want stress, anger, and fear to get the last word in your marriage?
By God’s grace, be overcomers.
Lord, we pray we never find ourselves without hope, without a glimpse of the empty tomb each time we happen upon a cross. Help us begin our daily journey expecting both crosses and empty tombs and rejoicing when we encounter either because we know you are with us.
– from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.