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When Stress Brings Out the Worst in Your Partner

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistJuly 08, 2020

No person or relationship is perfect. Add to this that when we feel stressed, we all sometimes respond in ways that are less than ideal. So, if recent stressors are bringing out the worst in your partner – and possibly putting your long-term, normally happy relationship to the test – you may want to pause and reflect.

Whether or not you want to admit it, your partner is not the only one who responds in less than ideal ways when upset. Yes, they might be doing things you’d never dream of doing, and yes, you may not understand how they could possibly react in those ways. But before you rant, rage, or reject their love, acknowledge that you also have your limitations and weaknesses (even if not as bad as theirs). So, pause to consider what’s going on for them and how you want to respond. The goal here is not to excuse or minimize your partner’s actions, but rather to reflect on them with curiosity.

Importantly, this suggestion to take time to think about their experience before acting does not include times when your partner is abusive. If you are in danger, make a safety plan and then leave (you can learn more about how to recognize abuse here). Also, if your relationship is relatively new and you don’t know your partner very well, consider that stress can serve to break facades and reveal important truths about our personalities – it may show you who your partner really is behind all of the niceties we project at the beginning of a relationship.

But if your situation is not dire, and you have some history with your partner to serve as a baseline, consider slowing down enough to:

Reflect on your relationship and your love. If you’re constantly aggravated over your partner’s recent actions, remind yourself that you are in this relationship for a reason. Think about what you love about your partner and reminisce about the good times. Hopefully, this will help you to see them with better perspective, thaw the cold that is chilling your heart, and enable you to think in a calmer way about what’s troubling you.

Listen openly to what they were thinking and feeling. Consider the messages they are sending with what they are saying and doing in particular situations. As you do, take into account the many stressors that they are contending with – including more amorphous difficulties, such as anxiety from the current state of the world and the stress of their lives or routines being disrupted.

If you are so worked up that you cannot do this, then you might want to step away and do something to help calm and nurture yourself. These actions can help you to listen with a more open heart. Because you are also facing many stressors, you may feel at your wit’s end. So, be patient with yourself.

Empathize with their experience. Being able to see a situation through your partner’s eyes does not mean that you agree with them or approve of their behaviors. It simply means that you can appreciate their reality – how they feel and think, as well as their motivation to act as they have done. Then share this awareness with them to give them the sense that you understand and empathize.

Note how empathizing with them affects your thoughts and feelings. If you feel compassionately toward them, it can be healing for them, you, and your relationship to express that compassion.

Express your thoughts and feelings about how your partner’s behavior affects you. Do this by briefly referencing their behaviors and then expanding on your feelings. By focusing on yourself and not attacking them, they will be less likely to be reflexively defensive. Also, hopefully, if you have been able to show empathy and compassion for your partner, they will be more inclined to empathize with your experience.

This process will need to unfold over the course of a number of conversations. During these discussions, and with the aid of time, you can decide whether you partner really is the monster you feel they are, or their actions were more human flaws magnified by terrible circumstances. With this clarity, you can be more confident in your decision about how best to move forward in your relationship.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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