So you're having a serious bad hair day. You look to your partner for sympathy and find they're even closer to losing it than you are.
It feels totally unfair. Here you are, frazzled and at the end of your tether. You crave a bit of cosseting, and the person you count on for comfort is in a worse state than you.
Sometimes stress conveniently afflicts us one at a time. But often our stress coincides. We can let our mutual stress wind us up and choose to snap and snarl at each other. Or we can help each other manage the stress.
It's a dilemma couples face all the time. Whose stress gets attention first? Who takes the initiative and offers some soothing to their partner?
It is one of the times when a real depth of goodwill is needed in a relationship. You've got to be able to trust that you are both doing the best you can, and that your partner isn't deliberately getting stressed-out just to avoid giving you support.
You need confidence that both of you will come to the party. So if one of you takes a deep breath and offers to cook dinner while the other relaxes, the other needs to appreciate the effort made. They need to make good use of the opportunity and let go a bit of their tension. They need to think about offering some care to their partner.
The better you know each other, the more helpful you are able to be. If you know the kind of situations that stress your partner, you can sometimes anticipate when particular care will be needed. Sick children, job interviews, deadlines at work would be some likely examples.
Its about being conscious of the triggers that effect you and your partner. If you struggle in the morning, your partner may learn to be more tolerant of your moods before breakfast. If your partner gets tense about money you approach financial discussions gently.
You can plan for some situations together. When you know things like long hours, or fraught meetings are coming up, you can decide in advance how to manage the tensions you are likely to experience. Reorganize how you share the dreary practical tasks and the opportunities to put your feet up. If times are going to be tough for both of you, perhaps you could prepare some meals in advance, or maybe you could just decide to dial pizza.
When partners manage each other's stress, a lot of what we do is take on practical tasks. But its not limited to this. Its about approaching your grumpy, hassled partner with a generous spirit. They won't relax if they feel that you resent doing the dishes or listening to them rant.
Sometimes you need to hold back and recognise that crabby comments are about them and how bad they are feeling, not about you. You might not accept behaviour like that ordinarily, but moments of high stress are not the time to make a point.
It's hard to stay calm and to soothe your cranky partner when you're stressed. But life gets rapidly harder if you join your partner in their unhappiness. A little bit of empathy can go a long way.
If you would like help to support each other at times of stress, contact Relationships Aotearoa on 0800 735 283 or telephone your local office which is listed in the telephone directory.