Become an Expert on You and Your Partner’s Stress Cycle



The holidays make me feel two ways: merry and stressed out.

As my partner sits across from me, we both glance around the near-empty sushi restaurant attempting to hide our annoyance with each other. We have just ordered our food to go and are waiting.

“We are grouchy, huh?” she says.

“Yup. I was just noticing how we’ve been especially critical of each other today.”

“Yeah. I don’t like it. I have a massive headache and don’t feel great. Not to mention, we haven’t eaten or had anything to drink for six hours and we’ve been really busy.”

“I know. It makes sense why we are grouchy with each other.”

The emotional walls of annoyance crumble between us as we reconnect after a chaotic day of visiting friends and family.

We often think of the holiday season as a cheerful time. But the holidays also come with “gifts” of long-distance travel, the effort and expenses of buying gifts for loved ones, hosting and attending holiday parties, cooking MASSIVE meals, and finishing up important end-of-the-year work projects.

All this stress can make us quite grinchy.

What’s interesting is that conflict in romantic relationships often escalates during the holiday season because of this added stress.

The problem, as hundreds of studies on the human mind have discovered, is two things: 1) situations influence people’s behavior, and 2) people are unaware of this reality.

So when our partner is more grinch-like than normal, our minds blame their personality for the problems, rather than factoring in what’s happening around us.

This happens to me too. Just before my partner said, “We are grouchy, huh?” I had to take a quick walk around the block because I noticed I wasn’t being the type of lover I want to be. I was a tad more critical and dismissive, as well as less engaging, than I normally am.

A quick walk like this is an example of taking a time-out during escalating conflict.

During that walk, I had to talk to the different parts of me. My immature part was highlighting all the things my partner didn’t do, comparing all that to all the things I did do. I felt justified in being angry, critical, and emotionally distant with one of the most important people in my life.

The mature part of me finally stepped in after about 5 to 10 minutes of this brooding and validated the “righteous” part of me as well as offered evidence to help soothe my thoughts and emotions so I could get back into relationship-enhancing thoughts and out of distress-maintaining thoughts.

Here is what my mature part said:

– “It makes sense that you’re upset right now because you’ve been driving for the past two plus hours and haven’t eaten or had any water in a long time.” (Note: I tend to get hangry.)

– “Yes, she can be annoying from time to time and she also does many positive and helpful things for you and the relationship such as…”

-“You are stressed out right now because you have a LOT on your plate before you leave for vacation next week and need to be aware that this is making you more critical and emotionally distant.”

While I couldn’t change the external stressors in my life, my mature part was able to change how I responded to the stressors when interacting with my significant other.

In Reconcilable Differences, the authors highlight that our daily circumstances not only impact how much we want to talk to our partner, but also how we talk to our partner. When we are stressed, we respond with quicker reactions, snap judgments, and stronger emotions.

The good news is that by learning how each partner experiences and copes with stress, as well as accurately identifying what it is we are stressed out about, can often prevent stress from outside the relationship from spilling into the relationship.


Regardless of whether you’re stressed or not, it’s vital to have an understanding of how you cope with stress, what types of things stress you out, and how you interact with your partner when you are stressed.

All of us experience stressful events, including daily stressors and major life stressors, such as having a child, moving, getting a new job, death of a loved one, having 16 family members over for the holiday, etc.

As an adult in a relationship, it’s vital to have a good understanding of the stresses in my life because stress accumulates. The stress from work, driving home, making sure dinner is ready, ensuring the kids make it to dance or soccer practice, etc., all add up.

I know when I’ve been stressed out from work, from my autoimmune disease, and from my share of managing the household, my mind can very easily convince me that my partner is the real reason I’m upset, which blinds me to all the other stressors that have been occurring prior to a conflict with my partner.

Step 1: Identify Specific Stressors:

For this holiday season, think of the stressors you might experience:

__ Job/School (end of the year projects/reviews)

__ Children (Holiday parties, gifts, being off from school)

__ Extended Family

__ Traveling

__ Physical and/or Psychological Health

__ Friends (Holiday parties, delivering holiday baskets, catching up)

__ Finances

__ Other

You may also want to use this exercise for other stressors throughout the year to gain a better understanding of yourself.

Now write down your top three stressors.

Step 2: Understand Your Unique Stress Signals

All of us experience stressful events throughout life. And every person reacts to stress in different ways depending on our stress blueprint.

How we think and feel impacts how we cope with the stressors we face in life.

  • What are the physical signs that you are stressed?
  • What are the emotional signs that you are stressed?
  • How do you think when you are stressed?


“The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.” – Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D

As you can tell, stress is helpful for me as a functioning adult. The problem is with too little, I can become unmotivated and might get very little done, but with too much, my body and mind shut down.

It can be really helpful to chart your stress levels so you can place healthy boundaries that allow you to have some stress in your life, but not so much that you become consistently overwhelmed.

One of my favorite equations for life is “Stress + Rest + Play = Growth.” While stress does help me grow, I also need to recover and have some fun in life. It’s not that stress is a bad thing, it’s when it dominates our life that we struggle.

Step 3: Understand How You Cope With Stress

When stressed, the body’s heart rate increases, as does blood pressure, and the body becomes activated for the three primal survival strategies: fight, flight, or freeze. This can lead us to fighting against our partner, withdrawing, or shutting down in our relationship or with the stressor.

Fill in the blank:

  • When I am feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt out, I tend to _______.
  • When I am feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt out, I tend to ______ while interacting with my partner.

Kyle’s example:

  • When I feel stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt out, I tend to walk to get coffee, stuff my face with unhealthy snacks, browse Facebook, take a nap, watch a movie, or binge-watch a TV series, and will sometimes write an outline of the minimum that needs to get done that day.
  • When I feel stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt-out, I tend to be more judgmental, critical, or distant while interacting with my partner. I also tend to tell her I am stressed, text her, or discuss with her ways we can change our evening’s plans so I can stop being so stressed.

Think about all the different ways you feel better, including the unhealthy ways.

Now go back through the list and circle any of the items you think are healthy and that help you de-stress. For me, that includes walking to get coffee, taking a nap, or writing out a list of things that must get done and removing things that “should” get done. I also circled telling my partner that I am stressed, which tends to bring us closer and make me less judgmental, critical, or distant.

“When you feel your body responding to stress, ask yourself which part of the stress response you need most. Do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow? Even if it feels like your stress response is pushing you in one direction, focusing on how you want to respond can shift your biology to support you.

If there is a side of the stress response you would like to develop, consider what it would look like in any stressful situation you are dealing with now. What would someone who is good at that side of stress think, feel, or do? Is there any way to choose that response to stress right now?” – Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

Step 4: Create a Destressing Strategy

There are probably some healthy coping strategies listed above that you yourself use. If you want to continue using those, think about some potential roadblocks you may experience if you used those as your main stress management strategy. Below are a few more ideas to help support you in managing stress in your personal life and relationship.


Personal Stress Toolkit

1)Enhance Mindfulness: Improve your awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and how your body feels. Realize that when you are stressed, you are likely to make snap judgments and experience your emotions more intensely.

For me, this required intentionally developing the mature part of my brain that is able to remind the immature part of my brain that I’m not seeing the full picture.

In fact, research on relationships uncovered that distressed partners miss 50% of their partner’s positive bids for connection. By being mindful of the stresses in your life and your thoughts, you can intentionally think and behave in a more positive way.

The reality is the more stressed we are about things in our life, including things in our relationship, the less tolerant and accepting we are of our partner, which often leads to more conflict.

2)Self-Soothe: Being able to self-regulate your emotions and healthily reach out to others for emotional support is a sign of maturity. You can learn how to do this more by going here.

3)Self-Care: In Ten Lessons to Transform Your Marriage, Dr. Gottman states “A Little Selfishness Can Help Your Marriage.” Even though you may live a stressful life, it’s important you find a balance between taking care of everyone else and yourself.

Don’t let self-neglect become your lifestyle.

Find things you can do daily to care for yourself. I personally have a daily well-being score that is a reflection of things I do that signal I am caring for myself. I notice that when I do less than six out of ten self-care items in a day, my stress levels tend to be higher.

4)Boundaries: If you tend to put too much on your plate, it might be time to examine all the things you’ve committed to and start to find ways to reduce certain things. Be honest with yourself and others about what you can and cannot do.

Relationship Stress Toolkit

When both partners are stressed out, conflict and distancing is inevitable. The key difference between merry couples and miserable couples is how they support each other when they are stressed out.

1) Have a Daily Stress-Reducing Conversation

2)Admit you’ve been stressed out and open up about what you’ve been stressed out about

3)Repair your relationship if you’ve taken your stress out on your partner. Then create a strategy to prevent this from happening in the future.

4)Team Up for Self-Care: Make a PACT to take care of yourself and each other. Have one partner take care of the kids for a period of time while the other does their self-care activities and then switch.

5)Talk about your values: In the Upside of Stress, McGonical states that “You don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.”

It’s very important to understand that when we are stressed, it’s often related to something we value. Take the opportunity to learn more about what your partner values by asking open-ended questions.

The holidays can be a time of love and fun, but it can also be a time of stress and conflict. Use the steps above to become an expert on how to soothe yourself and your partner. Give your relationship the gift of a deeper connection, less stressful reactions, and more intimacy this holiday season.

With love,

Kyle Benson

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