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It’s Official: External Stress Affects Romantic Relationships, But What Can We Do About It?

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We all know that too much stress can cause problems to your physical wellbeing: it can mess up your sleep schedule, make you lose or gain weight, cause illness, and (if you’re like me) cause a healthy dose of acne.

But, perhaps it’s most challenging when stress begins to affect our relationships. And unfortunately, often, they do. One study conducted in Switzerland, found that when people experienced external stress (such as money problems, conflicts with friends, and work) it usually bled over into their relationships, causing more stress at home. In fact, there was a direct correlation between how much stress people experienced outside the home and how satisfied they were in their romantic relationship. The more outside stress, the less happy they were in their love life.

While this is definitely troubling, it isn’t necessarily a surprise. We know that people aren’t at their best when under pressure and any unpleasant behavior can be difficult for those who love them.

For example, stress is known to make some irritable or angry, which could lead to blowups about little things like doing the dishes. Others might respond to stress with moodiness or distance, which, even if it doesn’t lead to an argument, could cause a feeling of discomfort and disconnect between partners.

Usually, couples will try to tough it out through stressful times, but what happens when you, or your partner, are more often stressed than not? This may be the case for many, as studies have suggested that stress levels are especially high (and may be on the rise) for young adults. 98% of American millennials reported feeling some form of stress regularly, with 20% rating their stress level at the highest ranking available: extreme. And it’s not getting better: 39% of those polled reported that their stress has actually increased in the last year. The study also found that while 60% of people said they were trying to reduce their stress, five years later, 53% were still trying.

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While outside stress may be a big factor in whether or not a relationship can thrive, it seems that how individuals support their stressed-out partners can be even more important in a relationship. Ignoring or downplaying your partner’s worries might cause more problems, while talking through stress with your bae could improve your bond.

But opening up about stress isn’t easy for everyone. In fact, some people’s first reaction is to hide their stress, following the “leave work at the office” philosophy because they don’t want to upset their partner with their troubles. But of course this never works, if you’ve ever been the “protected” partner, you know they can usually sense when something is wrong with their S/O and can feel left out or even pushed away — which doesn’t exactly improve your relationship.

Another reason it’s hard to open up could be because someone is worried that their S/O won’t have the right reaction, or because they felt disappointed in their S/O’s reaction to their venting in the past.

This tension and secrecy alone can cause a rift in a relationship. One partner feels alienated and ignored while the one (who experienced the stress) continues to go without support. It’s a no-win.

These feelings aren’t uncommon. According to a survey by the American Institute of Stress, more than 25% of those polled in 2014 felt ignored or alienated by a friend or family member because of stress. Another study in Britain found that one-fourth of couples choose to sleep in separate beds due to stress-related issues. Like, WHAT?!

Perhaps this idea of bottling up your stress isn’t unfounded, though. Studies have found even when couples do open up to their partners, they aren’t always getting the support they need.

One 2015 study recorded a sample of heterosexual couples in their homes, taking note of moments when partners supported each other. They found that, of the time couples spent together, couples offered each other support for just 4% of the time.

With this in mind, one might decide that spending more time offering support to your partner may help you both get through a stressful situation or high-anxiety times. But, giving your partner extra attention can be difficult, especially when under stress yourself. One study explored how people comforted their partners when they were under stress too. It found that not only do people handle their partner’s stress differently when they’re under stress, but that gender may play into it — naturally.

A study from 2015 observed how couples interacted with each other after one or both of them were instructed to perform stressful tasks such as public speaking or solve math equations. Researchers found that while partners who hadn’t yet taken the test tried to comfort their stressed partner, things changed when both partners were stressed. When both partners underwent the stress test, men showed less support to their female partner. It’s thought that perhaps men felt so overwhelmed dealing with their own stress that seeing their partner go through the same stress felt like there was more pressure put on them, too.

But there is a way to overcome relationship challenges associated with stress. Instead of seeing stress as a problem to get through, experts say it’s best to use stress as a way to get closer to your partner. Learn how to express stress productively and practice being a good listener. Talk to each other about appropriate times to vent to each other and what support you want when stressed. Research shows that loving activities such as handholding and hugging can reduce levels of stress (hallelujah!), though lots of people see support in different ways. Some might want their partner to listen to them while others might want help solving a stressful problem. While stress can cause problems in a relationship, it can also create opportunities for growth, understanding, and more effective communication &mdashs; all of which can make your relationship stronger.

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