How to Overcome Marriage Stress
Updated: Sep 15
Modern Living is Characterized by Stress
Many of the couples I work with are stressed out and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of adult life. Partners talk about job stress, money worries, parenting young or teenage children, high maintenance pets, and the costs and responsibilities of renting or owning your own home. These are the day-to-day stressors of modern life.
When death, sickness, job loss, or another major life event affects one or both partners, the pile-on effect can feel impossible to navigate.
The backdrop of instability in the world -- from economics to politics to social justice to the environment -- leaves many adults feeling there is nowhere to find respite.
Unfortunately, couples will often turn on each other when things become overwhelming. In my work as a couples counselor, I invite partners to turn towards each other instead.
3 Ways to Overcome Marriage Stress
#1 Make small structural changes in your life.
I encourage couples to look at the structure of their life together. Very few want to do it. In some ways, it is easier to feel overwhelmed and helpless than it is to take ownership of how you are living your life.
Looking at structural issues involves:
Knowing your values and priorities;
Comparing that to how you are spending your time;
Making an honest assessment of whether or not things line up; and
Having the courage to make some difficult changes
For example, if it is important to you to be "less stressed" and "more calm," and you notice that you rarely have that experience, you might need to make some changes that feel risky and uncomfortable. For example: setting boundaries at work; saying no to social invitations; sitting down with your partner and dividing up household responsibilities; scaling back your spending to live more within your means; creating a budget; enforcing a schedule and routine with your children; responsibly re-homing pets with significant behavioral issues or needs.
None of these things are easy. They take thought, energy, and time. It is possible that the initial effort towards change will *add* stress to you and your relationship.
How Partners Can Turn Towards Each Other: Use this as an opportunity to get to know yourself, and your partner, better. What do you really want? What really matters? Ask each other: What kind of life do we want to build together? What kind of relationship do we want to have?
#2 Practice emotional self-regulation.
When experiencing stress, a person will often think, "if only my partner would change, I wouldn't feel this way." That way of thinking keeps couples stuck. Instead, I support each person in the couple to consider, "What practices can I develop to soothe myself when I'm feeling stress?"
Stress exists on a continuum, from mild levels to trauma responses to being in crisis. A person under stress doesn't have the capacity to attend to their partner. In high-conflict moments where both partners are under stress, the first priority is for each partner to take care of themselves by self-soothing. Only then can partners attend to each other's needs.
Self-soothing can take many forms. Here are some examples of methods for self-soothing used by the couples I work with: 1) noticing and naming emotions; 2) breathing, and in particular, belly breathing; 3) feeling your pulse; 4) choosing a new thought; 5) reciting an affirmation or mantra.
How Partners Can Turn Towards Each Other: Partners can share with each other which methods of self-soothing they are going to try. During high-conflict moments, partners can announce to each other what they are doing. For example, "I need a break from this conversation so I can take a few deep breaths." Afterwards, partners can de-brief with each other on what the self-soothing experience was like, and how it impacted their discussion. Partners can notice, support, and congratulate themselves and each other on practicing and developing self-soothing skills.
#3 Learn new patterns of interacting with your partner.
Many of the couples I work with put their energy towards waiting for the day when finally they won't be living with stress. (Be honest with yourself: When is that going to happen?) I encourage couples to step into adulthood by accepting the reality of their lives right now. Adulthood includes being a leader in your own life. True leadership, in my opinion, means making tough choices and decisions, living more in alignment with your values, and doing your best to deal with the harsh realities of life.
One tangible way to be a leader in your own life is to make a study of how you interact with your partner in moments of stress. Slow down and notice what you are doing. You can notice how your body feels, your emotions, your thoughts. Watch how you behave, including your body language, your facial expressions, your tone of voice, the words you say. You can ask your partner to share how they experience you when you are under stress.
Couples therapy is an opportunity to get support in doing this kind of analysis. In the beginning it can be hard for couples to slow down and see themselves clearly, especially when emotions are heightened. Sometimes we work with interactions that are happening "live" during the session, and other times, we will analyze interactions that already took place and then re-do the conversation, with this framework, during the couples therapy session.
In my work as a couples counselor, I use the following framework with couples who want to practice a new way of interacting:
Identify the source of stress. What was the thing that set you off? Was it something your partner said or did? Was it something external to your relationship?
Notice your internal response. How are you responding to the stress? Consider physical sensations in your body, emotions, and thoughts. Additionally, how do you react? Do you shut down, get nasty, say something sarcastic?
Use a coping mechanism to self-soothe. Rather than reacting, take care of yourself. Practice recognizing what you need when you are experiencing stress and then giving it to yourself. You might need to take a pause, say something kind to yourself, breathe, or remind yourself that everything doesn't need to get done right this minute.
Make a request. When you are taking responsibility for your own self-soothing, you can then ask your partner for additional support. Many partners experience a tremendous sense of relief in knowing what a partner really finds helpful in a difficult moment. Support can look all kinds of ways. As examples, I've seen people ask their partners for a hug, to extend the energy of patience and understanding, and to say specific words and phrases that feel kind.
Negotiate the request. You might be asking your partner to do something they don't feel comfortable doing. Many couples collapse into a defeated stance when the first attempt at a request doesn't work for both people. If you experience this, I encourage you to stay with it and negotiate! You may need the extra support available in marriage counseling sessions to work through this kind of impasse.
How Partners Can Turn Towards Each Other: Each partner can use this framework to explore their own experience, and then share what they are learning about themselves. Partners can get curious about each other and use this as an opportunity to know and understand one another better.
A New Paradigm
Couples who understand what creates stress for each partner, and what both people need to manage that stress, have a real advantage. This is powerful information that can be used to create a life where stress levels are reduced and better managed. When stress is actively dealt with, relationships have more opportunity to thrive.
About the Author
Diana Calvo is a Denver couples therapist. She provides professional support to couples in all stages of relationship and has experience working with the many difficult issues couples are faced with. Diana offers premarital counseling, couples therapy, discernment counseling, and divorce counseling services to Boulder, CO and Denver, CO. All gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationship styles are welcome.