12 Oct How To Keep Your Relationship Thriving (Even During Stressful Times)

Hubby and I have had our fair share of stress recently… and whilst we weren’t laughing at the time, we’ve emerged with a fresh repertoir of funny relationship stories, and a marriage that’s all the better for it. I figure it’s a great opportunity to share some thoughts about how to keep relationships thriving even during stressful times. But first, the backdrop:

Recipe For Potential Relationship Disaster:

Place one marriage therapist and one husband in car with brand new caravan in tow. Stir in a generous cupful of bad weather. Then add one handful of unexpected mechanical faults requiring expensive mechanical repairs. Cover with a sprinkle of non-life threatening (but unpleasant nonetheless) health dilemmas. Mix well, then drive for long distances into unfamiliar destinations involving frequent itinerary changes and navigation challenges. Place in overcrowded tourist parks alongside unprecedented volumes of fellow grey nomads, young van-lifers, and interstate lockdown escapees. Allow to simmer in the uncertain and mildly panicked vibe of a global pandemic until well done.

Yep, we got cooked!

It’s true that there were times when our road trip didn’t end up anywhere near as relaxing and stress free as we’d both imagined. Whilst we’ll forever be grateful for the many fabulous experiences we shared and the cherished memories we created, the stresses of nomad life during Covid, the hiccups caused by rookie errors on our part, and the bad luck that at times seemed to haunt us, finally wore us down. Sick of the crowded tourist destinations and reluctant to risk being stuck behind borders should loved-ones suddenly need us at home, we pointed the car towards the east coast and haven’t looked back since.

It really could have been actual relationship disaster!

Given that a major portion of my marriage therapy practice involves teaching couples how to keep their cool and relate well (especially during times of heightened stress), it was humbling to witness my own communication deteriorate into childish point scoring and bickering at times!

Yep, I admit, there were a few interactions that didn’t exactly bring out my best self. And judging from the snippets of conversations I repeatedly overheard from fellow campers, plenty of other couples were failing to communicate well and keep their relationships thriving during stressful moments, too.

However, the good news for hubby and me personally?

Even in our most stressful moments, we didn’t navigate anywhere near relationship disaster. In fact for us, those stress filled moments and relationship wobbles were an opportunity for even more beautiful relationship growth.

So why (and how) do some couples handle stressful times so easily (and even grow closer through them),
while other couples don’t?

Well trust me, I can speak from recent personal experience when I offer the following shortlist of essential relationship skills:

1. Cultivate a culture of goodwill together.

This means that you must expect the best from each other and give the benefit of the doubt when your partner behaves badly. Treat each other with kindness and respect, in good times and in bad, and regard aberrations as the exception rather than the rule. (Please note: this does NOT include verbally abusive or violent behaviour, which is a completely different discussion).

2. Build a relationship based on relational empowerment rather than individual empowerment.

This means that you prioritise your relationship over your respective individual wants or needs. This is easy to do in good times, but you must also do this when your relationship is under stress, by asking yourself “What does my relationship need right now?” rather than “What do I need?”, and then communicating accordingly.

3. Develop self-care practices that you can immediately harness whenever stress levels rise.

Abdominal breathing should be your first, because it’s a go-anywhere strategy for regulating and calming your nervous system.

4. Engage in ongoing personal curiosity that will teach you what your respective emotional triggers are.

This means understanding why you over-react with outbursts in some situations or become moody, defensive, or shut down in others. Then, step up and take responsibility for yourself when you behave badly. Until you own your own bad behaviour, your relationship can’t move on.

5. Know where the “Relationship Pause Button” is, and use it!

This means having a pre-arranged strategy for taking Time Out when things get too heated, so that you don’t say (and/or do) stuff that will damage your relationship just because you’re loosing your cool.

6. Master the art of offering a genuine heartfelt apology…

… and the art of graciously receiving one so that after a relationship hiccup you can swiftly move on, together.

7. Design a lifestyle that will invite minimal ongoing stress.

This means making decisions as you build you life together that will allow the “big stuff” (like your home, jobs, families, activities and obligations) to be as stress free as possible. Life will always throw unexpected stress at you, so strive to live within your means so that you can accomodate additional stress when it happens. Great relationships can survive stressful periods, but any relationship will eventually buckle if the high stress periods never end.

Ohh, and if you’re relatively quiet, private folk like we are, here’s one more tip: think twice before embarking on an extended road trip and staying in tourist parks during the covid era. For us it’s true: there really IS no place like home!

Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Pamela has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive for almost 30 years. Contact Pamela here.