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Decision-Making as a Stressed Couple

Posted By Donald Ferguson, PhD, Wednesday, July 16, 2014
How does your brain work when you experience stress? At certain levels of stress, you may actually feel more creative and artful in your approach to problems but there is a point at which you may feel confused, lethargic, overwhelmed and perhaps resentful when you feel like too much is being expected of you. 

A stressed out or overwhelmed individual will become more simplistic or black-and-white in his or her thinking. This has been demonstrated in numerous studies and is perhaps most clearly seen in corporate decision-making where very smart, insightful people become less creative and ignore critical information when overwhelmed. Black-or-white thinking means that people will see only two options in most situations and can then become very wedded to one or the other option. People are often confused when in this impaired state, they see only these two possible answers to a given problem, and cannot fathom why their partner cannot see the obvious "right" solution. The partners cannot agree, but also cannot break the problem down into smaller categories and explore possible "grey-area" options. As the tension rises they are likely to dig in their heels with each other and feel less and less like they are working as a team. This feels like a betrayal. The pain of perceived betrayal in turn increases the tension and the rigidity in thinking. 

Under stressful conditions, we tend to ignore data that does not correspond with our initial reaction. The simplistic brain tends to gather data which supports its initial assumptions. We certainly see this in politics. Simplistic mottos and rants take the place of dialogue and discussion. Loud criticisms of those in the opposing party, patriotic sounding diatribes, appeals to religious beliefs, attacks on the evil of taxes, the supposed damage done when trying to provide health care to the population, all may hold currency with an anxious and stressed population. However, these have proven to offer no opportunity for negotiation and accomplishment. Instead, they have gridlocked and threatened the stability of the nation. A very similar process occurs between stressed out spouses. 

In situations where there is a feared loss, people tend to override all other considerations, including positive opportunities as they focus on that feared event. A person who is anxious about losing their job will, for example, not be comforted by the idea or even believe that there are other better jobs available. They will tend to only be annoyed by such suggestions and may fail to take advantage of a great opportunity until they have somehow managed the anxiety. Similarly in couples where there is some feared loss or injury, an individual may not even be able to hear reassurance or hopeful comments from the partner. 

Consider Bill and Cindy. Cindy complains that Bill is gone more than he is home and that he places work far above her and the children in terms of priorities. She describes him as having a "high old time" with his business associates and golf buddies, while she has to manage the home. He describes being on the road with long meetings, hotel rooms and constant pressure and nothing to look forward to at home but more nagging. They then argue over who works harder and has the greater pressure. They are fighting over which of them is a good partner. This, however, prevents them from really hearing of each other's sense of feeling overwhelmed and lonely. If they could talk about the need to have valuable time together at the end of business trips and if Bill could hear Cindy's needs without merely hearing her as criticizing him personally, they might have a chance at a real discussion. In turn, if Cindy felt like Bill was hearing her she could lower her voice and perhaps be less strident. When they move away from the black-or-white positions of her being a nag and him being uncaring, they have a greater chance of a positive, partner discussion. Such discussions make improved intimacy more likely as well. 

Partners must first recognize that these anxious reactions, these simplistic or highly personalized views of problems, are normal in stressful times. They are linked to impaired thinking, not to any lack of caring or appreciation for the partner. When you are feeling most aroused, defensive and needing to win, you should realize that you are not able to think at your best. In calming yourself and rejoining your partner, there is no guarantee that you will come up with the perfect solution. However, if your primary goal is a supportive partnership with increased opportunities for affection and closeness, you have a much better chance of that with expanded options and cooperative teamwork. For your sake, I hope that this is indeed your primary goal. the added benefit is that, with this more cooperative, positive and smarter stance, the odds are much greater that you will arrive at a positive solution that works for both of you. 

Tags:  relationships 

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Albert J. Bellg says...
Posted Tuesday, September 2, 2014
I like this way of understanding relationship difficulties. It gives hope that when both partners have a desire to create a better relationship, there are ways to lower stress and create opportunities to bring their best understanding and caring to each other.
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