I get a lot of questions on how to manage chronic stressors in relationships, especially during the recent COVID pandemic—so much has changed and many of us have had to learn how to work and live together, which can be a challenge! So, in this podcast (episode #405) and blog, my husband Mac and I talk about how we manage stress in our own relationship, how we live and work together, and why keeping the peace isn’t always the best thing to do in a relationship.
Of course, everyone experiences stress, and there is no magic way to stop stressful things from happening in a relationship. People are and will always be people! However, the good news is that you can learn how to manage relationship stressors and resolve them, and this will not only improve the bonds you make with the people in your life, but also your own mental and physical wellbeing.
Interestingly, one study indicates that adults over the age of 68 years are 40% more likely to resolve arguments and maintain their relationships than adults 45 years of age and younger. Some people suggest that this may be because seniors better understand the finality of life and/or have more experience navigating arguments, and are more likely to resolve them. Here my husband Mac may have some things to add since he is almost 68, and certainly has had a lot of experience navigating relationship stressors!
But you don’t have to wait till you are 68 years old to recognize that relationships are a challenge, and that leaving an argument unresolved can feel really “ugh!” In the same study (from Oregon State University), researchers found that when people feel they have resolved an argument, the negative emotional response associated with that disagreement/issue is significantly reduced and, in some situations, almost entirely erased, while there is a negative effect on an individual’s mental and physical health when issues are left unsettled, which we also observed in my clinical trials.
Researchers have long been aware of how chronic stress can affect health, from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety to physical problems like heart disease, a weakened immune system, reproductive challenges and gastrointestinal issues, as I discuss in detail on my podcast and in my books.
When it comes to relationships, this is the elephant in the room we need to talk about: the day-to-day relationship stressors that build up in a cumulative way over time can and impact our emotional and physical health. Even the minor, small arguments that we experience daily can have a lasting impact on our wellbeing and mortality by increasing our risk for inflammation, cognitive decline and so on. Needless to say, it is imperative that we learn how to manage these stressors before they take over our relationships and life!
As I always say, while we cannot always control what stressors come into our lives (and the lack of control is itself a big stressor!), we can learn how to manage our stress and the impact it has on our lives and relationships. We can work on our own emotional response to the stressors we face—we can learn how to manage what is happening in us even if we can’t stop what is happening to us!
Yes, some people are more reactive than other people. However, the extent to which you can tie off/resolve the relationship stressor can improve with patience and practice. As I observed in my research and discuss in detail in my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, it takes a substantial amount of time to rewire a thinking pattern—things will not change overnight. A new mental habit, one which will impact how we think and behave in a sustainable way, actually takes at least 63 days to become automatized!
But, thankfully, as you work on your relationship issues, this will help minimize the potential long-term impact that these stressors will have on your mental and physical health. In fact, when the argument or issue is resolved, the toxic effect is literally removed from your brain!
Below are some tips that my husband and I have found helpful in our work/life relationship, especially when it comes to resolving arguments:
- Check your perceptions: before you respond to someone, make sure you understand what the other person means. Ask for clarification before you react, especially if you feel triggered by what someone is saying or doing!
- Give grace: give the people in your life a second chance. Try to see the best in their intentions and actions first, and try to understand why they are upset or acting the way they are. Why are they showing up like this? What may be going on in their life? But don’t let someone walk all over you or enable toxic behavior! Boundaries are also incredibly important in a relationship, as I have discussed in several of my blogs and podcasts (see below for more on boundaries).
- Practice self-reflection: why are you reacting the way you do? Why do you feel the way you do? Are you looking at that person through the past, not the present? What assumptions are you perhaps making?
- Avoid sweeping statements: “always…” and “never…” are trigger words, so choose what you say and how you respond carefully, or you may make the situation worse!
- Find a resolution: try to acknowledge your own role and responsibility in the dispute, say sorry, and work on actually changing your behavior so that your apology has weight and is not just an empty word.
- Do an argument autopsy: once the argument is over, discuss what happened with the other person (or even with just yourself) and what went wrong—talk about the argument as if you were giving advice to a friend. Use this to understand how not to repeat this pattern in the future. For more on this, and how to use my mind-management technique (the Neurocycle) to do a thought “autopsy”, see my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess.
- Have clear boundaries: be clear in the way you communicate what you do and do not want, and stand firm. Remember, boundaries without enforcement are not true boundaries. At the end of the day, love requires the freedom to say no. Each person needs to take responsibility for their feelings and reactions. If people aren’t free to say no to one another, then this is not real love and the relationship is devoid of personal freedom.
- Avoid building a toxic thought around what happened: don’t ruminate on what happened. Think about the argument in a healthy way to learn from what happened, as I mentioned above (i.e. do an argument autopsy). Remember, whatever we think about the most grows and affects our perceptions and behavior!
- Choose how you want to use your energy: we all have a limited amount of mental energy, so we need to choose how to use this energy wisely. Rather than using it on rehashing a toxic pattern or thought, for example, we can choose to use it to build a healthy response or habit. Remember that unmanaged expectations, anger, irritation and frustration take a huge amount of energy and time!
For more on relationships and resolving arguments, listen to my podcast (episode #405). If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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2:34 How to manage everyday stressors that can impact your relationships
3:00 What do you do if you are constantly around someone who frustrates you?
3:30 We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control what is in us
4:40, 11:00, 19:00 How resolving arguments can improve your mental and physical health
8:00 Why assumptions are dangerous
8:22 Why keeping the peace isn’t always a good thing
11:00 The blister study: what does it tell us about arguments and why is important?
13:30 Why we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and facing our relationship issues
13:50 What happens in the brain and body when we don’t resolve arguments or issues
18:20 The number one reason we shouldn’t be afraid of conflict
25:00 Why we should always ask for clarification and be willing to shift our perceptions
29:00 Why we should give ourselves and others grace
31:50 The power of self-reflection and how it can help resolve arguments
36:00 The most dangerous statement to make during an argument
41:50 Why we should do an argument “autopsy”
This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.