Life can be difficult and that can obviously effect our relationships.

This post is part of a series looking at the four main factors that get us stuck in problematic patterns of interaction and create arguments that come up over and over. External stressors work together with the other three factors to create a cocktail of polarization and conflict. Personal differences, emotional sensitivities, and patterns of communication complete the other three factors and are discussed in the other posts in the series.

External Stressors make things worse in our relationships.

Well, yeah, that’s kind of a no-brainer. It makes total sense that the circumstances in our lives often create hurdles for use and that those hurdles complicate our intimate relationships. Tell us something we don’t already know!

The problem is that behavioral science has fairly conclusively shown us that 1) external stressors change our behaviors, and 2) we are often largely unaware of this fact.

Really?! We’re unaware of it? Yes, typically people explain each other’s behaviors in terms of their personalities, leaving out any reference to situational factors at play in the environment.
The problem is that our current stressors often influence our behaviors in ways that effects our relationships, and this happens outside of our awareness.

This isn’t to say that external stressors give us free range to behave however we want in relationships. On the contrary, we are all responsible for our behaviors. The problem is that as members of a couple we are often unable to give credence to the fact that there are many things at play influencing our partner’s behaviors.

Take, for instance, the case of Joanne and Tom. They have a traditional relationship in which Tom is the breadwinner for the family and Joanne is a stay at home mother and housewife. Tom often comes home at the end of the day overwhelmed from a day of near constant interaction with other people and their problems. He wants to just vegetate and decompress in front of the TV.

Joanne, on the other hand, has been working diligently and is exhausted from caring for their children and the house. However, she has had very little social interaction. She would like to sit down and talk with Tom about the day and have an adult conversation, which she has had limited chance for up until now. Their external circumstances and stressors create a very different need for adult conversation at the end of the day.

There are definitely ways that Tom and Joanne could work to better meet each other’s needs, and it is hoped that they will do so. The problem is that they experience these different needs in terms of problems with the personality of their partner, as opposed to a multi-faceted issue that takes into account their external stressors.

External Stressors can exacerbate personal difference and emotional sensitivities.

As discussed in the previous two articles in this series, personal difference and emotional sensitivities are important pieces in how relationship problems develop and are maintained. One of the big problems with external stressors is that they can make these issues worse, often at no fault of either party.

Take, for example, the case of Justine and Fred. Justine tends to be the type of person who is more open to having platonic friendships with other men, and is comfortable with each of them socializing separately. However, Fred has a preference for doing social activities together as a couple and doesn’t care for opposite sex friendships (differences).

In addition to this, Fred’s mother had an affair when he was younger, which has contributed to a sensitivity and difficulty with trust. On the other hand, Justine was controlled by her father and constantly had to answer for herself, which has contributed to a sensitivity towards feeling controlled and monitored (emotional sensitivities).

Lastly, Justine’s career demands a great deal of time interacting with other men, including at social networking events. It’s relatively clear how this external stressor (Justine’s job) can exacerbate the existing issues in their relationships. In fact, at the time that this couple eventually sought marriage counseling, they had begun to find themselves in very intense and volatile arguments.

So, what should be done about external stressors?

Well, it would be nice to get rid of all of them, wouldn’t it? While that’s not necessary realistic, it’s vitally important to understand the role that external stressors play in relationship problems. While this may seem obvious, we also know fairly conclusively that people tend to lose sight of this. So, spending time working on the capacity to step back and view the whole picture (including all of these contributing circumstances) is a very important skill to develop. This is no easy talk, but well worth the payoff.

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