Stress comes in many forms. Perhaps your spouse is having trouble at work. Or maybe she’s caring for her aging parents. Or perhaps there’s tension between your spouse and an extended family member or close friend. Or maybe your spouse is sick, suffering from a health problem or concern.
Whatever it is, your spouse has been distant, touchy, and absent—shirking his or her usual responsibilities. You want to be there, but you also want to be treated with respect.
What to do?
- Voice the effect this stress has on your marriage. Don’t ignore it or talk around it. At the same time, don’t judge. Voice it as evidence, in much the same way a scientist might note the behavior of a mouse he or she is studying. You might say, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been getting takeout instead of cooking lately” or “whenever I try to talk to you, you seem distant. I’d love to know what’s going on.”
- State your concerns. Often, what’s really on your mind is this: fear. Few of us, however, are willing to admit that. So we end up talking around the fear, often blaming the spouse, which ends up starting a fight. Simply state the truth, “I’m worried that we are growing apart” or “I’m worried that I can’t handle this all without your help” or “I’m afraid you don’t trust me enough to open up to me.” Have the courage to be vulnerable. It’s your vulnerability that will allow your spouse to feel safe enough to lean on you.
- Listen. Our spouses just want to be seen, heard and acknowledged. Rather than do that, however, many of us attempt to solve their problem. After all, it’s a lot easier to solve other people’s problems than it is to solve our own. If you feel the urge to jump in and offer advice, hold back. Instead, listen and acknowledge with statements like, “That must be hard for you” and “That must be so frustrating.” Know that sometimes listening means that you don’t press when your spouse says, “I don’t want to talk about it.” It also might mean that you don’t jabber away when your spouse is anxious, because your chatter just works to heighten the anxiety. Be okay with silence. It might not be what you would need in such a situation, but it might be exactly what your spouse needs.
- Be there. This might be as simple as sitting quietly with your spouse while you hold hands. Or it might entail accompanying your spouse during a stressful moment, such as visiting the doctor for test results. It might be rubbing her feet. It could be initiating in the bedroom—and doing all of the physical work during the actual event, too. Being there means that you do what you need to do to get your own mind under control. Do deep breathing, meditation, exercise or venting (to your friends, not to your spouse) to get your own stress out of your system. But don’t try to control your spouse’s mind. Don’t say things like, “You have nothing to feel scared about” or “This is nothing to stress over.” That minimizes your spouse’s situation. If you want to know what it feels like to be minimized, think about how you felt the last time someone told you to stop worrying, stop being so angry, or stop feeling so stressed over something so minor.
- Temporarily ease the burden. If needed, offer to pick up some slack around the house or elsewhere to free up your spouse to deal with this stressful issue with his or her full attention. Help your spouse solve problems.
- Care for yourself. Again, this is where so many of us (myself included) go wrong. We spend so much time caring for our spouse that we neglect our own needs. Soon we’re the ones who need special nursing and attention.
- Cut your spouse some slack, but give it a deadline. Allow your spouse to seek refuge in television reruns, too much sleep, or some other seemingly dysfunctional practice, especially if your spouse doesn’t usually wallow in this way. On the other hand, if your spouse is constantly stressed—the kind of person who is a walking basket case 24/7/365—then you’ll want to create a boundary. It might sound like this, “I’m going to be here for you as much as I can until the end of the month. After that, I really think that it’s time for you to try counseling.”
Have you supported your spouse through a stressful time? What worked? What didn’t? Has your spouse supported you? What did you find helpful? What drove you nuts? What additional advice do you think others might try?
If you are reading this by email, click through on the post headline to go to the Internet site and leave a comment. The comments area is toward the bottom of the post.
Thanks Maureen for suggesting this post topic.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.