How To Communicate Effectively With Your Partner When You’re Stressed Out
Don’t communicate well when you’re stressed? Join the club. These eight tips can help change your behavior.
Stress has a significant effect on how couples communicate, transforming traditional conversational landscapes into minefields. Heightened tension and shorter fuses often go hand in hand, making you more likely to snap at innocuous or well-meaning comments or questions. In the clutches of stress, it can be a surprisingly quick leap from, “What should we do about dinner?” to one of you saying, “I can’t deal with this right now,” or, worse, “I can’t deal with you right now.”
Every couple can become caught in a cycle that can spiral into an explosion during times of stress. The result? Even though neither party meant the other any harm, feelings are hurt, no one feels heard, and stress levels shoot higher than they already were.
Learning how to communicate when stressed, therefore, is a crucial relationship skill. Yet it’s one that, experts agree, many couples suck at. Signals mix. Lines cross. Cycles persist. So what can you do to better handle it? It’s about understanding how the brain functions under stress and developing tools to help you sidestep the traps that heightened state can produce. Oh, and maybe a few communication basics.
Why Stress Makes Communication So Difficult
There’s a neuroscientific reason why it can feel impossible to communicate with other people when you’re stressed. During demanding periods, people operate from a different brain region than the one used for empathic, active listening, says Dena DiNardo, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia. The region running the show is the limbic system (i.e., the primitive brain), which is the part of the brain responsible for basic survival activities only, such as breathing and blinking.
“Your limbic system controls the fight-or-flight response, which is designed to take over as a way to protect you,” says David Helfand, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist specializing in couples’ therapy in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont. “If you’re in the wilderness and a wild animal is threatening you, you don't want to spend time thinking about options, you want to react. Our brains aren’t designed to deal with perceived stress in a relationship context; when we’re stressed, fight or flight hijacks all higher functions.”
The ability to to listen in a thoughtful, supportive way, requires access to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for organized thought, emotion regulation, and advanced cognitive function.
“To utilize our prefrontal cortex, we need to be in a state of perceived safety and emotion regulation,” DiNardo says.
How Stress Affects You And Your Relationship
Even if your partner is the one more directly affected by stress — whether it’s work-, or family-related, or whatever — their stress could impact you in ways you don’t realize. Stress and relationship satisfaction have a strong (and unsurprising) link, one that affects both mental and physical health. Marital stress can have significant consequences on hormone function, immunity and cardiovascular health, a 2021 study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, & Immunity Health suggests.
Another study of couples published in 2020 showed that levels of cortisol – known as the stress hormone — in both partners were still high even the day after they experienced spikes in stress. The researchers also found that having a partner with higher perceived stress was associated with greater cortisol dysregulation, which is a condition that can damage adrenal glands – glands that affect heart rate and blood pressure – over time. A partner’s stress was particularly consequential for the other partner’s cortisol when couples exhibited more negative and fewer positive behaviors during a conflict.
Most people know the basics of fighting fair (don’t call each other names, don’t blame, don’t deflect), but the rules tend to fly out the window when couples are stressed and freaking out. So how do you minimize the damage stress can have on your relationship? Here’s what to remember.
8 Ways To Communicate Better When You’re Stressed Out
1. Familiarize Yourself With How You React To Stress
When you don’t realize how stressed you are, you’re not aware that protective, instinctual fight-or-flight responses have taken over. So you might get snappy and irritable, or avoid the family altogether. To sidestep the problems that come along with that, it’s helpful to develop awareness about your patterns, as well as how you want to be supported when stress happens.
“One thing I’ve learned to do when I’m angry is to ask myself, What’s behind it? Am I really hurt or afraid, or both?” says Nick Bognar, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Pasadena, California. “Once you uncover what’s actually going on, then you can work on it. This reduces anger a lot better than just being a jerk to people around you.”
In addition, think about how you want to be supported during stressful episodes, DiNardo says. Do you want to talk about it or be left alone for a while? Do you just want a hug and reassurance?
2. Talk About Stress Before It Happens
It’s helpful to have a discussion about stress when you aren't stressed.
“It’s possible to talk about and understand stress in a compassionate, healthy, and safe way,” DiNardo says. “In fact, it can even improve a sense of feeling seen, heard, understood, and supported. Ask questions like, ‘When you’re stressed, what do you need from me?’ and then put that into practice.”
During the conversation, also try to frame what you want and need from your partner as solutions rather than complaints, Helfand adds. The phrase he uses is ‘Paint a picture’. “You have to create an image in your and your partner’s mind of what you want,” he says. “That’s how it comes to fruition.”
Sports psychologists have understood this for years, Helfand adds. “They teach coaches to tell players, ‘Hold onto the ball,’ for example, not ‘Don't drop the ball.’ [The latter] implants the image in their head that they’re going to do that.”
Put in a relationship context, you can, for example. tell your partner, “I don’t like it when you cut me off mid-sentence.” But that could be creating an image in their head of what you don't want them to do. What works better is telling your partner what they could do or say to make you feel loved and supported, such as asking for space to express your thoughts fully when you’re dealing with stress.
3. Don’t “Vent” To Your Partner
“A question I often get is, ‘How do I come home and vent to my partner?’ I say, ‘Easy, don't do it,’” Hefland says. “Venting is usually not helpful unless it includes some sort of solution.”
Venting, Hefland adds, will just cause tension. It’s okay to say you had a really tough day at work and just want a hug, or that you just want to take a walk together and not talk about anything. It’s also okay to ask your partner if you can just express your frustration for say, 10 minutes, or ask for help to fix a problem that’s creating stress.
“If you say, for example, ‘My boss is a pain, and I need some help figuring out what to say to him,’ then your partner can join as part of the solution, and you can work as a team,” Helfand says. “But you need to make that explicit and be clear about the intention of the conversation.”
It’s also important to first make sure your partner has consented to being vented to, Bognar adds: “And ask yourself if you’re expressing real feelings, such as being afraid. Or are you just building on your own resentment and using the person you're speaking to as a punching bag as you perpetuate your feelings of victimhood.”
4. Advocate For Yourself
Stress tends to beget stress. It’s common for someone who reacts to stress with anger to lash out and hurt someone else. Many partners don't know what to do when they’re feeling stressed or say they don’t know how to handle it when their stressed partners yell at them, Helfand says. This is because many people have low emotional intelligence, which refers to the ability to understand, express, and control one’s emotions.
“Being unable to communicate their emotions is often a huge issue for couples,” Helfand says. “A question I get all the time is, ‘What do I do when I feel defensive, or angry, or betrayed?’ I tell them, ‘Just say that! Say, ‘I’m feeling defensive right now.’”
If you’re on the receiving end of a stressed partner who starts snapping at you as soon as they walk in the door, you generally want to reference your feelings rather than their actions, Helfand says. Say you feel attacked or dismissed. Tell your partner you’re going to leave the room for five minutes, he suggests.
“That’s modeling behavior for your partner and avoids judging them. Rather than saying, ‘You're acting like a real asshole right now,’ or ‘You need to go take a five-minute break,’ which is not going to go over as well,” Helfand says. “Usually in a healthy relationship, your partner might then say, ‘I’m sorry, I should have given you a heads up that I was in a bad mood.’”
If you tell your partner you’re feeling sad, they can’t reasonably argue with that, Bognar points out. “But people fuck it up by saying things like, ‘You’re making me feel sad,’ which puts people on the defensive,” he explains. “Expressing vulnerable emotions works so much better and keeps defensiveness to a minimum.”
5. Lead With Compassion
Positive interactions can blunt the effects of stress on relationships, research suggests. Gently questioning your partner about how stress might be affecting them in a compassionate way is less likely to make them defensive, says Amanda Craig, Ph.D., licensed marriage and family therapist and author of Who Are You And What Have You Done With My Kid?
One morning, for example, her husband asked her if she was feeling tired, which made her pause and think about it, she says. She realized she was anxious about the day ahead and that her husband had given her the space to figure that out, while letting her know he saw her and cared about her.
“You have to be open to that feedback,” she says. “He could have said, ‘Gee, you’re awfully rude this morning,’ but instead, he made me feel supported and connected to him.”
If you sense your partner is stressed out, it can be helpful to simply say, “Hey, it seems like something’s bothering you. I’m here to support you in whatever you need,” she says.
“You want to work in collaboration with your partner, not jump in and take over,” Helfand adds. “Encourage them to take care of themselves.”
6. Take A Break
It’s absolutely more difficult to listen to your partner when you’re stressed out. If you or your partner is stressed out, take a time-out from each other.
“Breaks should happen anytime either person starts yelling, and most certainly if or when anyone starts name calling or criticizing,” DiNardo says. “It’s very difficult to repair when words become abusive, so take a break before it gets to that point and regulate your nervous system.”
Once blood is flowing back to your prefrontal cortex, you can organize your thoughts and feelings and find a way to articulate them in a healthy, functional way, DiNardo says.
Bognar and Helfand recommend diaphragmatic breathing, which is physically calming, when you’re stressed. You can also try journaling or writing letters to each other to help sort out feelings.
Writing things out can also help if tensions escalate in the middle of whatever conversation you and your partner need to have, DiNardo says. She recommends pausing as soon as you realize there's more than one topic on the table and grab a pen and paper. Start making a list of each of the topics coming up and then look for themes. Are they all different examples of the same thing? Or are they entirely different topics?
“Sometimes compounding multiple issues in the same fight is a learned behavior,” she says. “When people revisit topics from the past, sometimes it means that something isn't truly resolved and an authentic apology hasn’t been delivered or received.”
7. Define What Fairness Means, To Each Of You
What’s “fair” is a much more subjective notion that a lot of people think, DiNardo says.
“It’s best defined in a collaborative way with both members of the couple,” she notes. Each couple should uniquely decide what fairness means to them.”
8. Fix Mistakes In The Moment
Correcting the way you handle yourself when stressed takes time and effort. There will be mistakes along the way. Learning to immediately address harsh or unkind comments you might make when you’re stressed and angry can be invaluable, Bognar says. But it takes practice.
“People want so badly to not do something in the first place that they’re unable to walk it back. If they snap at their partner, or stay silent, they might think, ‘Dammit, I’ll catch it next time before it happens,’” he says. “But it’s extremely helpful if in the moment you can say, ‘I’m sorry, that was a mistake; let me say what I wanted to say instead.’ Accept the mistake, out loud. The more you do it, the better you get at catching hurtful comments ahead of time.”