Good communication is a skill that needs constant practice, even on a good day. During times of stress, your communication skills take a hit.
When someone is stressed they might become easily frustrated, choose their words poorly, not be receptive to feedback, and even raise their voice during an argument. It’s even normal during stressful times to feel like your relationship is strained, as well.
When faced with problems outside their relationship, couples with anxious, controlling, and demanding patterns are more likely to communicate through arguments and blame, blocking off any capacity to work together to find a solution.
This behavior can cause couples to avoid these difficult conversations altogether. In couple therapy, avoiding conflict isn’t considered a good thing — arguing with your partner is healthy, when done the right way.
Refusing to communicate or cooperate, feeling shut down, or giving each other contemptuous looks may indicate deeper levels of conflict or fear in need of support. Claiming that “you never argue” may also mean you never negotiate difficult things.
Knowing how to communicate effectively is especially important during times of stress. So how do we develop the skills to turn denial or destructive arguments into constructive ones?
The first stage of turning an argument into a constructive conversation is to avoid stating your fears and mistrusts as if they were universal truths. Your feelings are valid, but it’s important to separate them from the facts.
Take one client, Mandy. After lockdown restrictions were lifted, her partner wanted to move her 18-year-old daughter in with them. This led Mandy to state fears as if they were factually true: “she will fill the house with smelly teenagers”, "it will be boys and loud music all the time."
I encouraged her to slow down her thinking, breathe, separate fears from facts, and own her feelings. So instead of assuming statements — which was her fear rather than a fact talking — a more accurate statement would be an "I feel" statement such as: "I’m worried that if your daughter moves in, you and I will have less space and time together" or "I need to set some boundaries for myself."
The second stage is timing a discussion well. It can take several hours for adrenaline and cortisol to leave your system, so delaying a conversation until both you and your partner are more receptive and less defensive is better than risking a negative outcome.
It’s perfectly okay to put a pin in it, take some time to cool off, and revisit the conversation when you’ve both calmed down.
Couples who exercise, make love, meditate, or practice yoga together can attune to their calmer hormonal states. By discussing problems after one of these attunement activities, you’re less likely to get defensive or let your anxieties take over.
The third key skill to ensure stressful conversations don’t turn into conflicts is to ask if what you are about to say is coming from a place of kindness.
Is it likely to bring you and your partner closer together, or if it is unkind and likely to push you apart? The old adage, “think before you speak” really rings true here.
Draw a 'stress circle' to help you communicate more effectively with your partner about the stresses you may be faced with. Here's how to do it:
Draw a circle that represents a major source of stress in your life. This could be a potential job loss or fears for the well-being of a loved member of your family for example
Outside the circle, write down your fear and blame statements.
Inside the circle, write down “I statements” and distinguish these factual, truthful thoughts from any fearful or blaming ones
Now discuss these 'I statements' with your partner and how you can make changes that will help you to manage this stress and grow closer together.