If you and your partner are feeling more like #DrowningInStress than #RelationshipGoals, just know you're not alone. There are stressful times that test any relationship, no matter how strong and healthy it is, and we all experience some of them in our lives. Whether you get through them with a lot of hugs and tears, or a lot of yelling and wine, the important thing is that you will get through them. The other important thing to remember is that we're not our best selves when we're having a hard time, so we need extra patience from our partners, and we need to give them some slack, too. And we all probably need a bunch of forgiveness — like, the boxed wine size of forgiving instead of the usual glass.
When I worked with couples as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator, I helped a lot of couples navigate a lot of stressful times — everything from jail time, to obnoxious snoring. Those times, even the snoring (hey, messing with someone's sleep is no joke) can test any relationship, and often do. Just remember that stressful times, even if you're temporarily miserable, don't last forever, and don't have to mean that your relationship is doomed to fail. Communication and caring can go a long way. If you have or are going through any of these situations, remember, you're not alone, it won't last forever, and things can get better.
1. When There's A Death In The Family
When there's a death in the family, everything can get turned upside down. People are sad, families sometimes argue, and funerals are the worst. And that's just the beginning. The grieving process can go on for a long time. Sometimes when there's a death in the family, one person is so devastated that they become distant, start drinking, get angry, miss work, or struggle with depression. And the other partner feels helpless, sad, and neglected. Some relationships don't survive these changes.
What to do: You need to give a grieving partner some time. You don't, however, need to enable destructive behaviors. Get your partner some grief counseling, medical attention, addiction support, or whatever kind of help they need. Serious grief is not something you can handle alone.
2. When You're Flat Broke
Money stress is the worst. It's hard, but it also makes you feel like you're not adulting correctly, and all your friends are better at life than you. Plus there's the strain it puts on your relationship. Couples fight about money all the time, but being flat broke adds a whole other layer of stress, because then you have to worry about how you're going to pay your bills, eat, and get to where you need to go. It can be enough stress to cause serious problems in a relationship.
What to do: Sometimes you just have to suck it up and be broke for a while, and things get better again. It's not like you can say "poof" and then you both have awesome, high-paying jobs and no bills. Budgets can help, as can finding side gigs. You can also get a little financial counseling. A professional might be able to get you lower interest rates on credit cards, or negotiate payment plans with your bill collectors to get you lower payments until you're back in the saddle.
3. When One Partner Changes
It happens all the time. One partner gets a new job, makes some new friends, and suddenly they're going out more without you, doing things they don't normally do, and even start pulling away. Sometimes they pull so far that the relationship can't recover. And sometimes it's just growing pains. Either way, it definitely tests the relationship.
What to do: You have to work with your partner to find balance between giving them the space to grow and change, and giving the relationship the time and care it needs. You also need to take some time to talk about what the "new life" is giving your partner that they realized they were lacking. It's possible for couples to change and grow together. Therapy, both separate and together, can help interpret these new changes and feelings and provide direction.
4. When One Of You Has A Serious Illness Or Injury
I'm not patient with sick people. So when my wife is sick, I kind of just want to flag down a stranger and hitchhike to the mountains. On the other hand, I have an autoimmune disorder, so when someone with a cold looks at me wrong, I get super sick and she takes care of me with love and patience. So it's easy, from those two extremes, to see how illness or injury can affect people in a relationship. If one partner breaks a leg, or even just gets the flu, the idea of caring for them might be daunting. But if they get cancer or get in a terrible car accident, it can seem impossible. Or like too much change to handle.
What to do: It's a lot of change, yes. Don't feel guilty if you don't want to, or aren't enthusiastic about taking on the role as caretaker. But know that your partner needs you, and also wants you to be happy. The solution might be to do what you can, then lean on nurses, family, and friends to do the rest. Or it might be to do all the care taking, but to make sure you have enough time for yourself to have some fun and take a break from things. Talking to a therapist might be good for you both, as well. The sick person probably struggles with guilt and feels like a burden. The well person might feel guilty for wanting a different life or for not wanting to suddenly be a nurse.
5. When One Of You Has An Addiction
Addiction destroys lives. It can destroy your relationship. But it can also bring you together and make you stronger. It just depends on what kind of relationship you have and how you handle the addiction. Some addictions change a person's whole personality and demeanor. Some people can carry on with their lives and hide their addiction. And some addicts steal, lie, and betray their partners. It's definitely a hard road to navigate as a couple.
What to do: Don't be an enabler. That means don't give them money to support their addiction. Don't turn a blind eye. Don't drive them to pick up drugs, and create boundaries about what behaviors you will or won't accept in your house. A person's doctor or sponsor can help you figure out what the best way to help them may be. Each person and addiction needs something different. In some cases, unfortunately, the only thing you can do is take a step back, especially if the person doesn't want and won't accept help.
6. When There's Distance
Long distance relationships can tax your relationship, but they can also make it great. Some people in long distance relationships are stronger than ever, because they must work harder to communicate, stay close, and keep their intimate bond. Some couples don't know how, or don't want to do that work, and the relationship suffers. Distance is hard, and it's not for wimps, but it's a stress that doesn't have to mean the end of things.
What to do: You have to communicate. Not only because it's all you have at the moment, but also because if you aren't telling each other how you feel and what you need from each other, you'll start to lose some of your closeness. Make sure to find creative ways to have dates, and to be romantic. If you want to stay close and do the work, the stress and loneliness of being apart won't end your love story.
7. A Rough Patch Or Disagreement
Sometimes you just have those patches where you just don't get along. Maybe it's a day. Maybe it's a week. Maybe it's a whole rough year. I can't think of many things more stressful to a relationship than a constant stream of anger, resentment, tears, and arguments. But sometimes it just happens. Sometimes it's just general stress, sometimes it's poor communication skills, and sometimes it's one person's issue clouding the relationship. Or you might be arguing over something specific, like how to handle a loved one, where to live, or if you should have children.
What to do: You can't keep fighting about the same thing over and over with no solution. You have to either compromise on a solution and stick to it, or you have to let one person get their way, and live with the repercussions of that decision (which could make things worse in the long run, if there's a lot of regret and resentment). If you just can't come to an understanding or find a solution, you need to seek the help of a therapist. This is what they're trained for. Otherwise, you risk things staying tense until they finally crumble.
Relationships should have a wiki or something, because a manual would be really handy. But when in doubt, therapists and counselors are the next best thing. When your relationship goes through trying times, you don't have to stick around. It might not even be healthy to do so. But if you think it can be saved, it's worth it to do the work.
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