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4 Tips That Help Couples Manage Stressful Changes Outside of Couples Counseling

Life is full of positive and negative experiences that shape ourselves, our story, and our relationships. Change and stress are inevitable,  and how we cope ultimately has an impact on our relationships for better or for worse. These life events do not have to prompt distance between couples, but can be used to foster closeness with one another using the 4 guidelines below. 

Life Events Can Trigger Distance (or Closeness) In Couples

There are a number of life events that can disrupt a couple’s connection, including:

  • Transitioning to parenthood (having a child, adopting, fostering, etc.)
  • Children moving out or becoming empty-nesters
  • Illness of partner or child
  • Death of a loved one
  • Financial changes (making significantly less or more money) 
  • Workplace transitions (losing a job or quitting, getting a new job or new position, etc.)
  • Moving

The common thread in all of these life events is change – a lot of it – and change causes stress. Change and stress aren’t what cause distance in a couple, though, but rather how a couple copes with the change and stress. Each of these stressful life events requires a great deal of resources to cope. Couples who cope in effective ways are able to use big life changes that cause stress as opportunities to deepen connection. 

Big Changes In Circumstances Can Spur Big Changes In Your Relationship

Not all couples encounter each of these life events, but all couples are bound to encounter changes in their relationship due to the natural stages of development that romantic relationships go through. These life events can certainly trigger a “growth spurt” in an individual or couple that can either lead to new levels of closeness and intimacy or new levels of pain and disconnection. 

What You & Your Partner Can Do to Navigate Stressful Change In a Way That Promotes Connection

1. Check-In With Yourself and Self-Reflect

The more self-aware you are during times of stress, the better able you will be to navigate your situation in a way that embodies the best version of yourself. You can also protect your relationship from unnecessary turmoil or conflict by reflecting on some of the following questions:

  • How do I cope when I am under stress?
  • How do I change emotionally and behaviorally when I am stressed? 
  • What is causing me the most stress right now? Why? 
  • Am I talking with my partner about my stress? Worries? Fears? If not, why not? 
  • Do I feel compelled to avoid certain conversations with my partner? Why? 
  • How am I talking with my partner about my stress or worries? Am I being open, honest, respectful, curious? Or defensive, closed-off?

2. Be Curious

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When going through big changes, not only do our circumstances change, but often, we as people change, too. That means you and your partner are co-evolving, and it’s important to continue to get to know each other as you both change and grow. Couples that are healthiest and happiest are those where each partner continues to discover new things about themselves and their partner. So, be curious! Ask your partner questions about what their experience is like, such as: 

  • What has been most difficult for you during this[insert stressful life event]? 
  • What has surprised you?
  • How has this changed the way you view yourself? Me? Life?
  • What has been most exciting/fulfilling for you in this transition?
  • What have you grown to appreciate or like about yourself (and your partner) through this transition? 

3. Check In With Your Partner and Assess

One of the leading causes for disconnection during a major life change is a lack of support. When one or both of you are enduring stress and change, feeling supported by each other is key. Consider these questions and try discussing them with your partner: 

  • What does support look like from my partner when I’m stressed? 
  • What expectations do I have about how my partner will cope with their own stressors? 
  • What does support mean to you right now? Are there areas where you feel you are lacking support from me?

In order to protect your relationship from the negative side effects of change, it is important to check in with each other about what’s working and what’s not given the recent changes in circumstances to make sure things feel fair and sustainable. Consider discussing the following with each other:

  • Does it feel like the current arrangement is allowing the relationship to benefit each of us equally? 
  • Or does our current arrangement benefit one partner at the other’s expense? 
  • What changes need to be made so that both of us feel like our preferences, comfort, and wellbeing matter equally?
  • Do you feel like we’re sharing the load fairly? Is there anything I can be doing more/less of to be more supportive?

Bear in mind that some of these questions might elicit answers that are difficult to hear. Couples counseling can be a safe space to discuss some of these topics productively. 

4. Be Intentional 

Relationship science is clear that the more deliberate couples are about planning together and discussing changes explicitly, the better off they tend to be. Here are some tips on being intentional about navigating change together: 

  • Talk about your routine and schedule meaningful time together
  • Give each other some intentional space. Sometimes big life changes require personal times of reflection, grieving, and/or rest.
  • Take turns initiating conversations where you share experiences, desires, hopes, and insights with each other.
  • Give each other some grace. Changes can lead to feelings of loss, uncertainty, and worry—a recipe for not always being our best selves.

Some of these questions are topics a couples counselor would explore with each partner in couples therapy or individual therapy, but you can certainly head some of these internal conversations up on your own (and a couples counselor or individual counselor would likely encourage you to!)

Turn These Life Events into Greater Connection in Your Relationship

Life events can bring big changes—some positive and exciting and some heartbreaking and challenging. They each have the potential to bring about greater closeness or more distance and disconnection in our relationships, and we each have a role in determining how we come through life events as a couple. In order to give ourselves the best chance to turn these life events into a vehicle for greater connection and commitment, it’s important to be curious and self-reflect about how we are supporting and engaging each other during this time of transition, how intentional we are being about taking care of ourselves and each other, and discuss how this life event is impacting each of us. Most of the time we do not get to decide how life happens to us, but our response as individuals and as a couple can lead to some of our greatest moments of growth and connection. 

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