By Denis “Woodja” Flanigan, PhD
The coming year might well be dominated by foreboding and uncertainty. The incoming president seems like a loose cannon, as likely to start a war with China or crash the economy as roll back LGBT protections. We have a Congress dominated by a party that has been historically unfriendly to the LGBT community, and appears to favor rolling back health protections for millions of Americans—particularly those living with HIV. Add to that the Texas legislature’s assault on our community with a “bathroom bill,” and the political landscape looks a little frightening. For some of us, the uncertainty in the oil and gas industry, a major force in Houston’s economy and a major employer, adds yet another layer of anxiety to the range of threats to our well-being.
These external stressors can impact the quality of our relationships. It is easy to carry the stress from our daily lives into our relationships. Worries about personal and global issues can put us on edge, make us irritable, and distract us. We can end up more focused on ourselves than on our partners. We may erupt more quickly into anger over slight frustrations and disappointments. Worry can even cause a decrease in our sex drive. Unless we are mindful about preventing or minimizing its influence, outside stress can exacerbate problems already present in the relationship.
Remaining mindful is the first line of defense against external stress. Communication and relationship-building are two strategies that can minimize the effects of stress. However, both of these approaches take deliberate action, and the stress itself can easily prevent that from happening.
Trying to be strong and carrying this stress on your own shoulders without sharing the burden with your partner(s) is one of the worst approaches you can take. For starters, a partner is left without an explanation for why you might be irritable or distant. We tend to make it about ourselves in those situations, which generally makes the stress worse. One of the most important benefits of having a relationship is being able to have a “confidant.” The health benefits of being in a relationship are largely due to the emotional support that relationships can provide.
If you want to have healthier, stronger relationships, start by sharing what’s on your mind. Let your partner(s) know what is bothering you. And listen. Just listen. Without judgment. As important as it is to share, it is equally important to listen. Many times, when your partner comes to you with distress, you want to “fix it,” or “make it better.” Well, a lot of the global stress we are likely to be experiencing in 2017 cannot be fixed and cannot be made better. Validation that your partner’s emotional response is appropriate can be very soothing. Simply feeling understood can be helpful. If you want to be encouraging, you can say something like, “I know this is rough/scary/etc., but we will find a way to get through this together—even if I don’t know how right now.” Attempts to “fix” the situation when the situation feels unfixable often increases the person’s stress instead of reducing it.
Consider doing regular check-ins in order to encourage this sharing. Ask how your partner is doing, or how they are feeling about things that you think might bother them. At the same time, share how you are feeling. Maybe try something like, “This event is really on my mind. How are you feeling about it?” Giving each other a chance to talk about what is going on outside of the relationship can help prevent the stress from escalating so much that you need to talk about it.
Also, doing things to enhance the relationship can fortify it against the impact of outside stress. Think of ways to foster greater romance, fun, and passion in the relationship. Make time to go on dates. Show your partner(s) that they are on your mind. Make time for recreation together—go to movies, concerts, plays, bike rides, walks, etc. Make time to have sex. Sex can neurochemically strengthen a connection. All of these things help to bond us.
Hopefully, none of our fears about the coming year will come true. But whether they do or not, we are all still affected by the stress of our jobs, our parents, traffic, taxes, etc. Making your relationship a safe place to communicate your concerns can ease your stress while strengthening your relationship. Every relationship can benefit from deliberate bonding. The stronger your relationship, the more resilient it is to stress coming from both global and personal issues.
Denis “Woodja” Flanigan, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice, specializing in alternative relationships.