Stress seems highly individual, a personal struggle. It strikes you, and the solution seems to have to come from within. But for professional couples, stress often occurs in tandem and is intertwined, the response requiring a co-operative approach.
John and Jackie Coleman understand that. Her work has been in counselling and education, his in business. They have had to manage busy careers, at one point with him in Atlanta and her in Boston. After eight years together, they have added a new complication and what Mr. Coleman calls a very demanding "boss," their son John Wyatt. They know many other couples who are also struggling with balance and stress, even though few experts have been addressing the topic of couples' stress.
Listen and support
John Coleman says that he is a fixer, a consultant trained to immediately correct any problem he encounters. But he has had to learn to hold back, listening and empathizing before fixing. She notes that typically women want to talk and men fix, but not always. "From our dating relationship, this was an issue for us. When he would come with a solution, I would be frustrated. So now we both try to listen and ask, 'Do you want a solution or just want to talk?' I'm a talker and need to talk it out," she said in an interview. He suggests getting the other person to articulate what they need since it's best to help them address the stress the way they prefer.
Respect different coping mechanisms
He tends to keep things inside after a stressful day – to the point she used to think he would explode – while she immediately wants to chat about the pressures on her. "Those aren't the most compatible coping mechanisms – and when we're both coping in our own way, we tend to drive each other crazy," they wrote on the blog. It's vital, therefore, to recognize how the other person handles pressure and respect that – and, as they have done, compromise if needed to accommodate each other. He might now ask for 30 minutes to decompress, but afterward, he will share. "There can be a tendency to assume everyone copes the way you do," he warned in the interview. "There are wrong ways to respond but we need to allow people more variety in coping mechanisms."
It's tempting when your spouse is complaining about stress to compare, saying you have a lot as well, or even more. Wrong. Even though it may be meant sympathetically, she says such comparisons "are one of the quickest ways you can make your partner feel invalidated." Similarly, don't judge your success relative to others. "Everyone wants to be seen as successful but there is always someone doing better and it can be depressing," he said. Just focus on supporting each other, and stay away from comparisons.
Be active together
They like to take time together walking, a favourite pastime since it gives them exercise, which counters stress, and a chance to chat about their lives and burdens. "You can kill two birds with one stone. Even five minutes of exercise will improve your mood," she said.
Be willing to cheat on your spouse (and job, and kids)
You have obligations to your spouse, children and job. But sometimes, this couple says, you should deliberately cheat on them. "This sounds terrible, but it's not as bad as it sounds," she said. It's simply a call for time for yourself, even if that time, inevitably, will be drawn from those other three priorities. "Sometimes you need to provide for yourself first," he said. He points to some friends who take a one-week vacation from – not with – their kids every year. The foundation of the family is the couple and you must ensure time to re-energize that bond.
Take time to laugh
A good joke or even a joyous pillow fight can help to break stress and keep the relationship on an even keel. "Life's problems are hard, but when couples can learn to tease one another, to laugh, and to use humour to confront life's difficult issues, they may also manage their relationship and their professional anxieties better," they write.
Balance your compromises
In two-career couples, career paths can collide and cause stress. She moved to Boston, for example, while he was in graduate school. They were then to return to Atlanta but she decided to further her studies so she stayed in Boston and they commuted for a period of time. "We've made sure both of us could pursue opportunities. In some couples, one party makes all the sacrifices," she said in the interview.
Beyond those specific tips is an overall premise: If you're part of a couple, view stress as something the couple must deal with rather than just a personal matter.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter