As we’ve discussed in this blog, most of the stress that a couple encounters comes from external forces, rather than from some great flaw between them.
The best indicator of how much stress will characterize a partnership is the level of functioning of the multigenerational family systems of both partners prior to the onset of conflict between them. Marriage is a joining of two family systems, and the best markers of a family’s health are the number and severity of dysfunctional people in it, and the number of conflicts and cutoffs in the system. The higher the level of differentiation in the multigenerational family systems they represent, the more stress a couple can absorb without generating the four kinds of problems that stress can cause: emotional distance, marital conflict, sickness or dysfunction in at least one partner, and projecting stress onto a child through triangulation. (See previous posts on these subjects.)
As we’ve noted, the external forces a couple faces include situational and developmental stress. Situational stress includes any event that calls for adaptive or coping behavior: a job change, a car breaking down, the loss of a pet, etc. In each of these situations, the individuals in the couple will cope in different ways, possibly adding more stress to the mix.
Furthermore, individuals and family systems go through a series of predictable developmental changes in the family’s life cycle that create stress on a relationship, such as marriage, birth, midlife, retirement, death. In addition, whenever there is a transition in the family structure—defined as any addition to the family system, any subtraction from it, or any change in the status of a family member—tension can form and build. Also, relationships themselves go through developmental stages, and the movement between these stages usually causes additional anxiety.
Relational Development Stress
Among the countless stressors that couples face are the natural growing pains of romantic relationship. As romantic attachments form and develop, people follow the natural patterns of relational developmental. (We discussed these phases in my post titled, “Why Men and Women Fight, Part 8.)
The movement through these stages creates its own stressors, but understanding the concept of relational development can help alleviate some of the natural tension couples experience as they grow together. (See In Quest of the Mythical Mate, by Bader and Pearson.)
The stress that occurs as a result of shifts and changes in culture and society can also place significant pressure on relationships. We’ve looked at the Feminist Revolution as one of those cultural shifts with shock waves that reverberate in intimate relationships. (See yesterday’s blog post, and “Why Men and Women Fight, Part 6 and 6.1.) Even Hollywood, Social Media, Capitalism, Religion and Politics put pressure on relationships. (See my blog posts on these issues, too.)
Some stress occurs just because men and women experience the world in some remarkably different ways, and it’s almost impossible for the partners not to project their respective worldviews on the other. This stress can be especially disruptive. (See blog post titled, “Why Men and Women Fight, Parts 1-3.)
When several of these stresses descend simultaneously, the cluster stress can set off a pattern of automatic relationship behavior, or reactivity, in the family system. If this reactivity continues without intervention, physical or emotional dysfunction will develop in the system’s most vulnerable individuals or relationships.
Differentiation to the Rescue
In a more differentiated system, the conflict flares up and moves around from one relationship to another. If the problem is moderately intense and short-lived, the system will right itself and re-establish pre-stress equilibrium. The less differentiated the relationship, the more likely the conflict will come to rest in the most vulnerable individual or relationship. When this cycle repeats over and over again, a rupture in the most vulnerable relationship will precipitate either distance with chronic conflict or a search for therapeutic assistance. (See blog posts titled, “Why Men and Women Fight, Parts 4-5.)
When cluster stress and undifferentiation in the multigenerational family system combine, a couple may experience conflict that they mislabel as some fundamental flaw in their partner or in their relationship. Knowing about cluster stress and family systems psychology can help couples name the stress correctly, which can help them contain the problem without adding undue stress on an already taxed system.
Symptoms of Stress
Stress creates symptoms in three ways. First, stress heightens the vulnerabilities already in the system. If that is the partnership, the stress will create symptoms there. Second, stress triggers emotional reactivity and automatic behavior when anxiety is high, and when the emotional system kicks in, it is more difficult to call on the intellectual system to come to the rescue. Third, people under stress feel more needy, which tends to heighten the expectations with which they came into the partnership.
Just when partners need each other most, they find they do not have the capacity to meet their own needs let alone the needs of their partner. Whether couples react or respond to this phenomenon will either create more stress on the system, or will contribute to a resolution. (See blog post titled, “Healthy Relationships: Nuclear Family Emotional System.”)
It is important for partners to cultivate the principle that stress provides opportunities to grow, as individuals and as a couple. From this perspective, the couple can work as a team to get to the other side of stressful times, becoming stronger than ever together.