As a therapist, I work with people who have very different reactions to difficult situations. How a couple manages stress can either break down or build up their relationship. The following are two real life examples of people who faced stressful situations and had very different reactions. Identifying details have been changed.
Example 1: Stan and Beth were stuck in the airport, trying to return home after celebrating their 2nd anniversary. They missed their connecting flight, and it was clear that they would not make it back home until the next morning. Beth was furious and blamed Stan for the missed connection. As Beth fumed under her breath, Stan argued loudly with the ticket agent, criticizing everything from the layout of the airport to the polices of the airline. The taxi ride to a hotel ended up in a screaming match. On the flight home the next morning, they barely spoke.
Example 2: Brian and Mark were driving to visit family for a week’s vacation. On a long stretch of highway surrounded by corn fields, the car began to overheat. Mark pulled over as smoke poured from under the hood. Mark was visibly upset, complaining about Brian’s lack of attention to car maintenance. Brian resisted blaming Mark for driving too fast. Instead, Brian put his hand on Mark’s shoulder and reminded him that they would be fine and laid out a plan of action. After calling for a tow truck (and being told it would arrive in 2 1/2 hours), they sat on the edge of the road together. They made some humorous comments about their situation and the age of their car. When they arrived at their destination a day later, their road trip story was discussed as more of an adventure than a disaster.
Two couples in two similar stressful situations had very different responses. In the first example, missing a flight was an event that turned the couple against each other. There was blame and anger. In the second example, the couple pulled together and tackled the problem as a team. Blame and anger were quickly pushed aside.
When a couple faces a difficult situation, they have three choices to make. The first is how they approach the problem.
For Beth, the problem was Stan; he made them late. Stan put the blame on the ticket agent, the airline, and the airport.
Brian and Mark experienced the problem as the car. It broke down. And while they could have easily blamed each other (Brian didn’t check the oil level, Mark drove too fast), they didn’t.
The second choice a couple makes when something stressful happens is where to put their energy. Beth and Stan spent their energy trying to prove the other one’s fault. The result was that they were exhausted, and nothing was accomplished. Brian and Mark put their energy into finding a solution and managing the aftermath.
The third choice a couple makes after a stressful event is how they remember it. When looking back on the event, did they focus on the negative aspect of it, or did they remind themselves of the positive parts of the experience?
If you were to ask Stan and Beth about their trip, what they would mention the missed flight and the problems it caused. Their anger at each other and their frustration about the situation overshadowed the happiness of their anniversary.
For Brian and Mark, the tale of their car breaking down in the middle of farm country would be retold as a humorous side story. For them, the incident was a shared difficulty that brought them closer.
It’s impossible to eliminate stress from our lives, but it’s important to realize that, while we may not have a choice about what happens to us, we do have a choice in how we react to difficult situations. How we react directly impacts not only our own emotional health, but the emotional health and vitality of those we are in relationship with.
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