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Coping with relationship stress

When stress interrupts your life, it can affect everything. It can make you more anxious and irritable, affecting your attitude, your energy levels, and the way you communicate. The person most likely to take the brunt of it is your partner, especially if your time and energy are being taken up dealing with whatever is causing your stress [1].

Types of stress

To help you deal with stress in your relationship, it can be useful to know whether it’s internal or external stress.

  • Internal stress. This is stress that comes from the relationship itself – like when you and your partner have clashing habits, or different ideas about where you want things to go [2].
  • External stress. This is stress that comes from outside your relationship – things like work and study, finances, family dramas, or just wondering how to fit everything in [2].

External stress can still affect your relationship even when it’s not directly connected [2]. It can affect your communication skills and may make it harder for you to work together to deal with internal stress. Tackling external stress can therefore help you feel happier about your relationship [3] and set you up to work better together as a couple.

Coping with stress together

External stress might sound like something you have to cope with alone, but it doesn’t have to be. When you’re in a relationship, you share more with your partner than you might be aware of, including the way you manage stress [4].

We know all the old platitudes – a problem shared is a friend in need (or something like that) – but there’s actually evidence to suggest that couples go through a process known as shared coping [4]. Picture this:

  • You get stressed.
  • Your partner picks up on your stress and tries to help.
  • You notice that you are being supported.
  • If it works, you start to feel better.

Coping with stress becomes a shared process where you both put energy into making sure each other are OK. As well as helping you both feel better in general, working through stress as a couple can strengthen feelings of closeness and trust in your relationship [4].

If you’re not convinced, here’s something you can try. Think back to a time when your partner successfully helped you through a stressful experience:

  • What was causing the stress?
  • How was the stress affecting you?
  • What practical help did your partner offer?
  • What emotional support did your partner offer?
  • How was the stressful situation resolved?
  • What was it about your partner’s support that helped you feel better?

You might also want to think about times when you’ve been able to support your partner and how this has felt.

Reflecting on what has worked in the past can remind you that you are capable of overcoming stress, even if it’s hard to see a way forward at the time. You can use this to help figure out what to do when future bumps or stresses come along.

How stress can improve your relationship

Relationships are at their most vulnerable during stressful life events like losing a job or the death of a parent; and big changes like moving in together or having a baby. During these times, it’s more common for stress to spill over into your relationship [5].

The good news is that you can develop your coping skills over time and get better at handling stress. Couples who handle smaller stresses at the beginning of their relationships are more likely to cope better when the bigger things come up [5].

When you deal with stress, no matter how small, you’re building your resilience and learning positive relationship skills. Over time, you’ll become more confident about using these skills to conquer whatever life throws at you [5].

You may not be immune to stress, but you’ll be more likely to have a sturdy relationship in which to sail through the storms.


[1] Randall, Ashley K, and Guy Bodenmann. 2017. ‘Stress and Its Associations with Relationship Satisfaction’. Current Opinion in Psychology, Relationships and stress, 13 (February): 96–106.

[2] Randall, Ashley K., and Guy Bodenmann. 2009. ‘The Role of Stress on Close Relationships and Marital Satisfaction’. Clinical Psychology Review 29 (2): 105–15.

[3] Ledermann, Thomas, Guy Bodenmann, Myriam Rudaz, and Thomas N. Bradbury. 2010. ‘Stress, Communication, and Marital Quality in Couples’. Family Relations 59 (2): 195–206.

[4] Donato, Silvia, Miriam Parise, Raffaella Iafrate, Anna Bertoni, Catrin Finkenauer, and Guy Bodenmann. 2015. ‘Dyadic Coping Responses and Partners’ Perceptions for Couple Satisfaction: An Actor–partner Interdependence Analysis’. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 32 (5): 580–600.

[5] Neff, L.A., Broady, E.F. (2011). Stress resilience in early marriage: Can practice make perfect? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, DOI: 10.1037/a0023809

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