Does your husband ever seem like he’s become a totally different guy?
It might sound like I’m about to launch into a creepy “Jekyll and Hyde” story for Halloween. But I actually want to talk to you today about the real-life power of stress and how it affects your marriage in ways you may not be aware of.
This article is for you if you’ve ever wondered “What happened to the great guy I fell in love with?” The answer is probably not what you think.
Before we dive in, though, let’s clarify the intention of this article. My advice here is not for you if you’re in a situation involving dire issues like abuse or addiction. If you ever find yourself saying things like “My husband is a great guy, except when he loses his temper” or “He has a totally different personality when he’s using,” then please consider seeking professional help.
Then and Now
First, let’s think back to when you and your husband first became romantically involved. You were totally new to each other, which really lit up your brains. He was paying lots of attention to you, and you to him. So you both felt seen and appreciated. If neither of you had children from previous relationships or other family obligations (like an aging parent), the beginning of your relationship may have also been a more carefree and less stressful time in your life.
Fast-forward to today. You probably have many more demands on your time due to your family and your careers. That makes you feel more stressed, which in turn makes it much more difficult to emotionally connect. You’ve quit looking deeply into each other’s eyes because you’re too busy looking deeply into your phones. All of those qualities that seemed so intriguing about him at first are now old hat. Instead, you notice more of his faults — his abrupt tone, lack of helpfulness, emotional distance — and they’re driving you crazy!
Our Brains ‘Go Negative’
So what’s going on here? Has he really turned into a terrible person? You’ll be relieved to know that this is highly unlikely. When you’re overwhelmed with stress, you get worse at noticing the good things about your husband. At the same time, you become super-attuned to anything negative about him. If he’s super stressed, he’s doing the same thing too! This is just how our brains are wired. Our ability to react swiftly to threats helped us survive as a species. But it’s not so handy in a modern marriage between two stressed people. One partner’s mistakes or slights can feel threatening to the other one. If you feel quick to anger or criticize, part of you is just trying to protect yourself.
Bring Your ‘Good’ Husband Back
Just knowing that your stressed-out brain might be playing tricks on you can start defusing tensions with your husband. Here are a couple of other things than can help as well.
Identify the sources of your individual stress. Are you sleep deprived, eating junk foods, or just plain lonely? Do what you can to bring your own stress down by making small changes like getting an extra hour of sleep or making sure you’re spending some time connecting with each other during the week. Sneak in the little things that keep love strong, like asking about each other’s days and marking special occasions. It may not seem like much, but can make a big difference over time.
It’s hard to start treating each other more lovingly if you don’t address the underlying stress that’s causing you to be critical and defensive.Take a hard look at your priorities as a family and seek ways to ease the pressure on you both. Do you need to reduce the kids’ activities so that you all have more time together? Can you rethink your budget so that you can work less or pursue jobs that aren’t as demanding.
Try these strategies and you’ll start seeing more of the man you fell in love with and less of that irritating guy who never does anything right. If the tips in this article are useful for you, can find many more like them in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Whatever you’re doing right now, take a quick break to watch this video of older women looking back on their lives and reflecting on what’s really important. It’ll take just a couple of minutes.
One thing that’s especially poignant and fascinating about this video is that the women point out that standards are different now than when they were younger and that there’s an expectation of “perfection” in the culture that they didn’t have to contend with.
Take parenting. Did you know that even though more women are in the workforce now, we spend more time with our children than women did in the past? We also deal daily with what seems like an ever-longer list of things we are supposed to do to parent the “right” way.
And then there’s social media, which can make it seem like you’re the only mom without exciting vacations, overachieving children, a blissful marriage, the ideal job, magazine-worthy meals and flawless holiday decorations.
When we constantly chase perfection, we miss the flawed but, in many ways, lovely lives we already have. That isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t pursue what’s important to you in life, whether that’s career fulfillment or a strong marriage. But as you do, remember to get out of your head and come into the present moment with the people you love and life you’ve created.
Amid all the doing, take time for simply being. Right here. Right now.
As the women in the video remind us, the years will pass quickly. And you don’t get a second chance to recapture the moments you lost.
Here’s what I want you to do: Think about what’s really important to you in life, and then make a list of those priorities.
Next, take a few days to track how you actually spend your time. It’s important to get some real data here, not just your estimates on where you think your time goes. Try to be as accurate as you can. (If you like tech tools, try a time-tracking app.) Make sure that you’re noting how much time you spend on your key relationships: your husband, your family, your friends.
The third step is to compare your priorities list with the information from your time-tracking. Are they in alignment? What’s taking up more of your time than you expected? And what’s getting less attention?
Your results might surprise you — you spend that many hours on Facebook? — and inspire you to rethink how you use your time.
As you do, pay special attention to your relationships. Marriage, family and friends likely ranked high on your priorities list, but you might have discovered that you’re shortchanging them.
Giving more time to your relationships is the most powerful way to improve your life. That’s not just self-help happy talk! The impact of our relationships is shown by science.
Take a few minutes to watch this TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, the latest leader of a 75-year study on what makes for a good life. Waldinger says in his talk:
What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pagesof information that we’ve generatedon these lives?Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder.The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this:Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.
Based on that study’s findings, when you devote time to strengthening your relationships, you can expect the payoff to be greater physical and mental health. The researchers in Waldinger’s study even successfully predicted how long subjects would live based on the quality of their relationships at age 50!
Your marriage is especially important:
It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer.
Think about how you can best use the time available to you to nurture your relationships, especially your marriage. You may even want to continue tracking your time and noting how a greater focus on relationships affects your happiness. Even if you add just a few minutes of quality time with your husband each day, it can make a big difference.
We all fall prey to it sometimes: The feeling that we should do more, be more, have more. We all face pressure to be ‘living large.’
Maybe you succumb to it when your sister asks what you’re doing to help your teen get into a high-ranked college. Or when your friend shares pictures on Facebook of the dream vacation your family can’t quite afford. Maybe photos of beautiful decors on Pinterest have you looking at your own house with critical eyes, or an upcoming class reunion makes you wish you had more career successes to brag about.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those pursuits, of course. The problem comes when we start chasing such goals without even asking ourselves whether we truly want them and how much they will truly cost us.
How might the stress of trying to “go big” in every area of your life affect you? Could the high expectations that go with pursing all these goals possibly take a toll on your marriage?
‘I Am Not Enough. There Is Never Enough.’
What turns our expectations for ourselves from a source of motivation to a source of stress? Well, some common beliefs in the United States have something to do with that tendency.
If that story is something you feel at your core, nothing will be enough to fill that sense of lack. You’ll be constantly heaping new expectations on yourself.
Then there’s our culture’s belief that you can do anything you set your mind to. The simple truth we often ignore, though, is that everyone has physical, emotional and financial limits. Your energies and resources are not infinite.
Now throw in the push to compare ourselves with others thanks to the never-ending barrage of images on social media. “Why does it look so easy for everyone else?” we wonder. And then we push ourselves even harder.
Feelings of scarcity, a belief that we should be limitless, and constant comparisons with others are a perfect recipe for ongoing stress.
And as you already know, being stressed only makes a marriage harder. When both of you constantly feel pressured to keep up with outside standards, it really makes it harder to keep the focus where it needs to be — on each other.
Is It OK to ‘Live Small?’
You may think that the happiest marriages are between people who have somehow figured out how to do it all and have it all. Not true.
Instead, the most satisfied couples get clear on what’s important to them. They step away from external pressures that don’t fit the life they want to create. And they make their marriage a priority, even when taking time for their relationship means they have to let go of some of the things they’re supposed to do or have (but that ultimately aren’t as important to them).
These couples haven’t escaped from pressure and expectations. But they can better weather them because their relationship gives them a strong center. And they don’t necessarily have tiny, circumscribed lives. The difference is they respect their limits and get added support when they need it.
Think about the expectations you put on yourself and where they come from. Do they stem from your own desires, or do they feel more like what you have to do to be “good enough”? Do they leave you energized and fulfilled, or stressed and emptied? And how do they affect your marriage? Whether you live smaller or larger, make sure your life truly reflects your most important priorities, and remember these wise words:
“If you don’t make time to work on creating the life you want, you’re eventually going to be forced to spend a LOT of time dealing with a life you don’t want.” -Kevin Ngo