Treat Your Relationship to a Stress-Reducing Conversation

Christy Lanterman, Licensed Professional Counselor on Sep 10, 2020 in Mood and Feelings

If you are like many other individuals experiencing life in this pandemic, you are likely feeling elevated levels of stress. In a recent survey done by the CDC comparing reports of adverse mental health outcomes in 2019, respondents reported experiencing 4 times as much depression, 3 times are much anxiety and 2 times as much suicidal thoughts in 2020. This is clearly a difficult time to be a human.

Normally, when we feel elevated stress levels, we can lean on our partners for additional support. But what happens when both partners are feeling stressed out? Where does the relief come from? Researcher and relationship expert, John Gottman found that the couples who provided each other regularly with ‘stress-reducing conversations’ reported feeling closer to and more supported by their partners.

Before engaging in a stress-reducing conversation, consider the following five items to make it more productive:

Agreement #1: Agree on Timing

Avoid assuming when the best time is to have a stress-reducing conversation. Find out when the best time is for your partner to connect. Agree on a time that will meet both your needs.

Agreement #2: Dedicate Your Presence for 20-30 Minutes

Some couples struggle because they do not spend uninterrupted time connecting. Use this time to attune to your partners emotions, remove distractions, ask open-ended questions, and make eye contact.

Agreement #3: Don’t Discuss Your Relationship

Take this time to discuss whatever is on your mind outside of the relationship. This is not a time to bring up relationship conflicts or unresolved issues. This is a chance to truly support each other in other areas of your life. Offer each other active and empathetic listening without judgment (this is easier when the topic is not focused on venting about your relationship/partner).

Agreement #4: All Emotions are Welcome

This is an opportunity to unload about frustrations, big and small. Allow for all emotions: sadness, fear, anger, joy, laughter. If any of these emotions feel uncomfortable for you to express or listen to, it may be time to explore why. Allow this time to be celebratory when one or both of you have accomplished something, big or small. Making space for each other’s emotions and experiences is what makes this time meaningful.

Agreement #5: Postpone Problem-Solving and Giving Advice

Sometimes the fastest way to make a stressed out person to feel more stressed and alone is to offer advice and problem-solve. Many times the most helpful thing we can do for our partners is to simply listen to and validate their frustrations. By offering unsolicited advice, we indirectly send a message that they are not capable of handling their problems on their own. However, when we respond with empathy (“I can see how this would be incredibly stressful”) and support (“I am here for you in this moment”) our partners feel less alone which often leads to feeling a lot less stressed.

Consider the following guidelines and open-ended questions:

  • Guidelines for the Speaker
  • Guidelines for the Listener
  • Take Turns: talk for 10-15 min then switch roles
  • Don’t Discuss the Relationship: use this time to vent about frustrations and stressors outside of the partnership.

Complain, But Not About Your Partner: keep complaints from slipping into something personal

If You Don’t Know What To Say, SIFT: express to your partner your body Sensations, Images, Feelings, and Thoughts.

Stay Present and Engaged: make eye contact, ask questions to understand, remove distractions, postpone your agenda

Show Compassion: take their side, adopt a we-against-others attitude, even if you feel their perspective is unreasonable. when your partner reaches out for emotional support, your role is to create a non-judgmental space.

Don’t Offer Unsolicited Solutions: only when your partner feels fully understood will they be receptive to suggestions. Understanding must precede advice.

Be Affectionate: touch is one of the most expressive ways we can love our partner.

Express Your Understanding and Validate Emotions:

  • you make sense
  • that sounds awful/that sounds terrible/that sucks
  • i can see why you would feel that way
  • i would be stressed too/that would hurt my feelings too
  • i am here for you
  • i can see how that would be stressful/frustrating
  • that must be hard

Questions to for the listener to consider, if the speaker does not know what to talk about:

  • What is something causing you stress right now (outside of our relationship)?
  • How do you know when you are stressed? What is that like for you?
  • What does stress feel like in your body?
  • How often do you feel stressed?
  • Where is most of your stress coming from (outside of our relationship)?
  • What are some things you do to relieve your stress?
  • What is something I do (or can do) that helps relieve your stress?

If no stressful things present, consider:

  • What are you most excited about right now?
  • What are you most looking forward to?
  • What is something you’ve been meaning to tell me?

To keep the conversations going:

  • Tell me more about that...
  • Say more...
  • What does this situation remind you?
  • What values/dreams are connected to this experience/situation for you?

Christy Lanterman is a Counselor in Prairie Village, KS.
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