Most of us are familiar with the cycle. At work, the pressure to be “always on,” to meet deadlines, to serve the demands of colleagues or customers, or to deal with a difficult coworker can create stress that leaks into our personal lives. This stress can cause us to be impatient with romantic partners or kids or to neglect our duties at home, creating a vicious cycle of anxiety outside the office that makes work stresses even harder to face.
There are countless examples of couples driven to the edge by work-related stress. And psychological studies have shown that outside stressors — particularly stress at work — can push relationships to the breaking point. But they don’t have to. The vicious cycle of work–home stress can become a virtuous cycle when partners learn to cope with stress together. We are social beings who tend to be happier when connected to others. Our romantic partner is, almost by definition, the person on whom we rely to provide support, and recent research has shown (PDF) that partners who practice dealing with stress together early on can actually strengthen the durability of their relationships over time.
Below are a few thoughts on how couples can cope with professional stress.
Listen and support. There’s a time to question, challenge, or offer solutions. But often when helping a partner deal with professional stress, listening and support are most valuable. Research conducted by eHarmony, for example, found that partners who are supportive when their counterparts share bad events maintain relationship satisfaction and create an environment that leads to fewer arguments. And we’ve almost all experienced the benefit of a friend or partner simply letting us talk through our problems, encouraging us through active listening. Silence can be one of the most powerful forms of communication. And asking thoughtful questions can help your partner gain clarity and come to his or her own conclusions.
Recognize and respect different coping mechanisms. Partners often cope with stress differently. In our marriage, one of us likes to talk everything out as soon as possible after a hard day, and the other needs a little downtime after work to decompress. These aren’t the most compatible coping mechanisms — and when we’re both coping in our own way, we tend to drive each other crazy. Over time, we’ve learned to compromise. Recognize that you and your partner may have different ways of dealing with stress, and there isn’t necessarily a “right” way of coping. Try to accept those differences and then find ways to accommodate one another. For example, let a partner who needs downtime after work have 30 minutes in front of the TV or on the treadmill, but ask that partner to agree to engage more later — over dinner or out for an afternoon stroll. Identifying and working with those differences can be essential to productively dealing with stress.
Kill comparisons. There are at least two types of comparisons couples make that can enhance rather than counteract stress. First, resist the urge to compare yourself or your partner to others professionally — judging your success relative to others. This can lead to doubt, inadequacy, and worry, and it’s a poor substitute for internal motivation. Second, don’t succumb to the temptation to compare stress levels with your partner. When you’ve had a long day and your partner is talking through his or her stresses, it’s tempting to let your partner know just how much bigger and more important your own issues are. But that only creates tension. Learn to simply listen and offer help to your partner. And try to solicit your partner’s help and empathy in your own stress without drawing direct comparisons or judging which is more important. Each partner is an equal, and all stressors are valid and important.
Be active together. One of our favorite activities as a couple is walking in the afternoons. When the weather’s warm enough, we take our son out for a walk around the neighborhood, using the time to catch up and talk through our days. We find that getting out and getting active together is a great stress reliever. Even moderate physical activity can lead to lower levels of stress. Boston University’s Michael Otto has noted, “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.” And numerous studies have confirmed exercise as an effective way to enhance mood and fight depression. Exercising together kills two birds with one stone, allowing you to stay physically active and spend more time together.
Find time to cheat (on your job and your kids!). Remember, you are with your partner because you love them — you like to spend time with them, talk to them, and share with them. But often, partners get in a rut. Work piles up. The kids need chaperoning to soccer practices and school events. And the easiest thing to cut out is often one-on-one time with each other. We’ve noted elsewhere that downtime can improve physical and mental health, and we’ve encouraged couples to occasionally cheat on their jobs with their spouses. Similarly, we’ve received good advice from many friends that time together away from kids is just as important as time away from work. So find time to connect as a couple away from the office and outside the home. Make sure that in sacrificing for work and family, you’re not sacrificing all the benefits of being a couple and the stress relief that comes with it.
Laugh together. John Gottman is perhaps the world’s leading authority on marital success. In his “love lab” he successfully predicts which marriages will end in divorce approximately 90% (PDF) of the time after a brief observation. And he claims that shared humor is both a key way to strengthen a relationship and a key “repair attempt” for couples in conflict. Serendipitously, humor is also a key way to deal with stress: Studies have shown that laughter can alter your mood and soothe your stress response. Life’s problems are hard, but when couples can learn to tease one another, to laugh, and to use humor to confront life’s difficult issues, they may also manage their relationship and their professional anxieties better.
These are just a few ways in which couples can more effectively manage professional stress together. Each couple will have to find their own solutions, but learning to cope with stress together is a fundamental skill for thriving at work and at home.
This is the first post in a blog series on taking control of stress. Jackie and John Coleman are contributors to the HBR Guide to Managing Stress at Work.