Dealing with Stress: Do You Turn Toward, Away From, or Against Each Other?

gay-male-couple-arguing-bsTurning Toward, Away, or Against

When stress occurs in your life or relationship, do you and your partner turn toward each other for support, soothing, and assistance? Do you try to protect your partner (or yourself) by keeping things to yourself and turning away from your partner? Or do you turn on each other and take out your frustrations at home so that you can continue to present a happy mask for the outside world?

Stress is one of those perennial issues. We all have it, from multiple sources. But some of us deal with it better than others. And some relationships weather adversity better than others. One of the tricks is learning how to stand back to back with your partner, acting as a team, together fending off and surmounting all the difficulties that come your way…INSTEAD of turning away from them and shutting them out of your head and your heart, OR facing off with them, using them as the metaphorical (or worse) punching bag for you to release your pent-up frustrations. When we are stressed, if we don’t have ways of managing our emotional state and if we haven’t formed a strong enough partnership bond with our beloved, then we are prone to taking everything out on each other or distancing ourselves from our potentially closest ally, either of which can spell relationship disaster.

gay-male-couple-argument-bsOur Partner as our Safe Zone Punching Bag

One of the reasons intimate partners sometimes take out their frustrations on each other is that the partner represents safety. Here’s a person who has promised to love you no matter what, to whom you can tell anything, with whom you have already recovered from a number of disagreements and problems. Those experiences lead the brain to associate this person with the concept of a safe space, where you can let anything out, and who will always be there for you. Unfortunately, sometimes our brains then translate that to mean this person will take anything we dish out, which isn’t fair to them, or ultimately to us. This approach is an abuse of that safe haven and will erode it over time.

Alternatively, if we could engage that person’s help with our stress, we’d all be much better off. There are ways to relieve tension, to reduce the pressure in the pressure cooker of our emotional psyche, besides getting into arguments or screaming matches, especially with the one we most want to be close to.

“Protecting” Our Partner

Sometimes, instead of attacking our partner, we instead wish to protect them, to keep from burdening them further. Taking our problems to our partner, especially when there’s really nothing to be done about them, can sometimes feel like we’re asking our partner to take on our stress. Many people in this situation do their best to keep their struggles to themselves, but this results in a situation where they feel the need to withdraw emotionally from their partner in order to keep up the facade.

Unfortunately, that can start a chain reaction where the partner feels the withdrawal and reaches out to make connection, causing the first person to withdraw further and get irritated with the reach out. Then the second partner ramps up their attempts to make connection and makes their attempts louder (and usually angrier). Stonewalling is often a result of this pursuer-distancer pattern of interaction, and is one of John Gottman’s Four Horsemen of Relationship Apocalypse, which he says is often present in relationships that don’t succeed for the long term, including same-sex relationships.

 Increase Your Personal Emotional Resilience

 It doesn’t really matter where the stress is coming from; there are several steps you can take to help you both weather any storms that come your way. First is to strengthen your ability to manage your own emotional state. You do this through expanding your emotional intelligence, which includes learning to discern and label your emotions, and how to convey those feelings to others. Increasing your emotional resilience is one part of this. Richard Davidson, in his book, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain,” describes “resiliency” as the ability to bounce back after setbacks or adversity. If the things in your life that cause you stress continue to weigh on you, keeping you off-kilter, depressed, angry, or otherwise caught in a negative downward spiral for longer than seems normal or necessary, Davidson suggests you might consider learning mindfulness meditation or engaging in cognitive reappraisal training.

 gay-male-couple-1367-bsCommunication is Always Key

 After focusing on what you can do to take care of yourself internally (such as learning mindfulness meditation to increase your emotional resilience), the next step in engaging with others is always…COMMUNICATE. It could be argued that arguing is a form of communication, but ultimately it’s not the form most likely to result in a good outcome, at least in the long run. Learning to become more aware of your own emotional state, so that you can share that with your partner is important. When you first get home from work after a particularly grueling day, you can say something to your partner like, “Sweetie, today has been rough and I know that I promised we could go out for dinner, but I’m feeling so irritated with people, I wonder if we could stay in and cuddle tonight instead,” Or maybe you’re more introverted, so asking for some alone time or quiet time before interacting might be more what you need.

 How NOT to Get Your Needs Met

 Here are some communication tactics almost guaranteed to result in NOT getting your needs met:

  •  Aggressively take or demand what you need (putting yourself first without regard for their feelings or needs)
  • Codependently expect your partner to just know and provide what you need (and not understanding when they don’t provide or do it wrong)
  • Valiantly try to sacrifice your needs in a misguided attempt to protect your partner (but then later feeling resentment because your needs never get met)

 Learning to honestly and clearly ask for what you need can contribute to a better outcome for both of you.

 What if We’re BOTH Stressed Out?

 Of course, the challenge increases if you’re both dealing with heightened stressors, and that’s when you really need to band together and work diligently at not letting outside influences corrupt your bond. Remembering to take whatever little moments you can carve out of your busy stressful days to engage in the following actions can go a long way toward helping you both feel lovingly supported and contained within the safety of your relationship:

  • Touch (without clinging),
  • Convey messages of love and support (with no strings attached),
  • Check in with one another (without hounding each other),
  • Respect each other’s needs for solitude and introspection,
  • Protect one another from unnecessary additional stress, when appropriate.

 Making time for each of you to express your frustrations, where the other engages in active listening; being sure to fill up each other’s love bank in whatever way your partner most feels love (see The Five Love Languages) — these techniques contribute to that sense of being a team, united against all the stresses of the outside world. Try to make time with each other just as high a priority as getting everything else done, because if the core component of your life — your intimate relationship — falls apart, how much does the rest of it matter? Problems are transitory, your relationship is meant to last…and it can if you both take care of it.


About Inara de Luna

Inara de Luna is a bisexual, polyamorous, kinky pagan who is also a Relationship Coach and a Sexuality Educator. She is a Gender, Sexuality & Relationship Diversity Specialist, with training and experience as a Marriage & Family Therapist. Inara is a sex positive activist, a published author, and a national presenter. She prefers to support those whose identities fall outside the mainstream norms. For more information, you can find her online at or on FacebookK/a>.