In times of chronic stress, many couples report that they are fighting more frequently. When we feel out of control of our future, when we feel constricted, when our routines change, we often feel a heightened level of stress and agitation. And who is the one we take our anxious feelings out on the most? Yes, our spouse. Also, if you had marital problems before the shelter-in-place began, they have likely gotten amplified by the stress caused by this pandemic. If you have tended to avoid the problems because prior attempts to discuss them have made matters worse, those problems will likely be bubbling up now. So, what can you do to get along better and work more as a “team?”

The most essential thing you can do to begin to reduce stress is to have an honest conversation with your mate but how you have that talk is essential. It is important to soften the way you start up the conversation. If you start it with a frustrated, angry or sarcastic tone, you can count on it going south from there. If instead, you approach your mate with an appreciative, kind tone, it can make a world of difference. Instead of saying, “Why can’t you be more helpful?” you can say, “I noticed you making an effort to .  .  . and I really appreciate that. I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by all that needs to be done and I wondered if you could help me by __________ (be specific).

Here’s a couple of questions that were posed to me recently that might give you some insight into what you more can do:

“Now that we’re home together 24/7, we’re fighting about everything – from parenting to finances to dinner. I don’t want to be mad all the time – what do you suggest?”

  1. Become self-aware.
    • Get curious about what’s going on inside of you. You are likely anxious or may feel out of control which feeds your anger.
    • Challenge your thoughts. What are you believing that is fueling your reactivity? Perhaps you are thinking: “I’m the only one helping around here!” Ask yourself if it’s completely true. When we’re stressed, we often engage in “All or nothing” thinking. We believe something to be true that is only partially true or not at all true. We go to these extremes to justify our position but lose our credibility.
    • Offer yourself compassion. The truth is, you have been under stress and you’ve been trying to manage as best you can. Take a deep breath and offer yourself grace.
    • Offer compassion to your mate. Your mate has been under stress as well and likely unable to express themselves effectively. Give them the benefit of the doubt. They too have a position that is fueled by feelings, thoughts and needs they are unaware of.
  2. Ask your mate, “What is one thing I could do to help you feel more supported regarding (parenting, finances, etc.)?” Ask them to be specific.
  3. Listen with a heart to understand rather than a heart to combat. This helps to create a safe space to discuss the issue.
  4. If you can do what your mate asks for, let them know you will do so. If you are not able to, ask them to be more specific or share with them what part of what they’ve asked for you can do. You can also ask them to make another request if you don’t believe you can do what they’ve asked for but use this sparingly.
  5. If you have unresolved issues that you have been avoiding that are causing problems, be brave. Invite your mate into a conversation by letting them know you want to have a closer relationship and would like to work through the difficulty. It can help to express appreciation for something they have done so they know you see the good in them. You might start by saying, “I know we haven’t been getting along and I want it to get better. I know some of my behaviors have added to our difficulty in discussing our issues and I want to take an honest look at that. Would you be willing to try a new way of talking about ___________(i.e: disciplining the children)?” (In chapter 6 of my book, Making Love Last, I have described in detail how to approach and navigate these conversations. It will give you the skills you need to face your issues and help you be more intimate partners.) 

“I’m feeling overwhelmed and my spouse doesn’t seem to notice. So, then I blow up at him and it causes a 4-day fight. What can I do?”

  1. Ask for what you need. Don’t expect your spouse to notice. Unspoken expectations are a recipe for disappointment and resentment. Also, stress makes us less observant. You may wait a very long time for your mate to notice which will only feed your negative feelings.
  2. Usually, underlying our reactivity is an unexpressed feeling or need. Get curious about what that might be. When you identify that, share it with your mate when you both are calm. Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you’re fearful that you may lose your job. Maybe you feel grief -loss of time with extended family. When you share your feelings, speak from your own experience. Avoid phrases like “You made me feel .  .  .” or “I feel that you .  .  .” This is more of a blaming comment rather than a sincere expression of a feeling you have. Be specific and share a one word feeling.
  3. Make a positive request for change. Rather than criticizing your mate, state positively what you would like. For instance, “I would really appreciate it if you would put the kids to bed tonight” or “It would really help me if when you get done with your work you would come to me, give me a hug and ask how you might help me.”
  4. Have a daily “stress-reducing conversation” with your mate. I mentioned this in my last post, but it is extremely helpful, so bears mentioning again. This is simple. Just set aside 20-30 minutes every night after the kids are down or before bed and each share for 10-15 minutes two feelings you had that day and what was happening when you had those feelings. The listener is to simply offer validation and express understanding. It is not a time to offer advice, judge, or problem solve. Simply listen. At the end, give each other a hug and express appreciation. It’s amazing how this practice can reduce tension and help you both feel deeply connected.

It will take two of you to get along, but your efforts as an individual can highly impact the goal of working through problems positively as a couple. Learning to manage your own anxiety, soften the way you start up a conversation and asking for what you need in a kind way can go a long way to change the trajectory of the fighting you are experiencing.

Please let me know if you attempted any of these suggestions and how it went! If you have others that readers might benefit from, please share them in the comment section!