The secrets to supporting a stressed-out partner

You’ve probably been in this situation: Your partner comes home upset from work or an event, and is confiding in you. You think you’re helping, smoothly saying all the right things, but—oh no! Lovey is getting more worked up. Angrier! Sadder! Oops.

Jennifer Priem, Ph.D., might be able to help out. She’s a professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in studying dating relationships and communications. Her research has focused especially on how supportive conversation techniques can reduce stress. In order to study how stressed out someone is, she measures levels of cortisol in their saliva. Cortisol levels rise when someone is stressed, and fall after emotions return to normal, in this case, via a calming conversation. Cortisol is the same hormone that can cause health woes such as heart disease, headaches and sleep disorders, and long-term exposure is damaging.

Here are Priem’s suggestions for how to be a supportive listener:

  1. Be clear with your partner if he or she is upset. People don’t tend to focus or interpret things well when they are stressed. “Clarity and eye contact help,” writes Priem.
  2. Provide nonverbal cues, such as nodding and touching to indicate, “Yes, I am listening.”
  3. Acknowledge your partner is under stress and experiencing something upsetting. Expressions like “Don’t worry, it’s nothing,” “You think that’s bad, I…” or attempts at distraction are generally not helpful.
  4. Focus on validation, rather than finding solutions. People under stress often just want to be heard, rather than have a problem fixed. Provide emotional support by listening and asking questions, and let solutions evolve only if the person directly asks for your counsel.
  5. Be willing to change course. “Support that is clear and explicit in validating feelings and showing interest and concern is most likely to lower cortisol levels and increase feelings of wellbeing and safety,” writes Priem. “If you aren’t seeing improvement in your partner’s anxiety, you may need to change your approach.” Maybe your partner needs to take a walk to cool down, watch a funny film, have a snack, receive a back rub, or enjoy a cuddle with the dog.

If both partners can learn the methods of supportive communication, not only will their relationship be stronger, but their lives will be healthier, Priem’s research suggests. Lowering stress means the partners will have less overall exposure to cortisol, providing health benefits.

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