Mental Health Tips

Relationship Distress

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Relationship distress usually arises from having significant conflict or discord with others. This distress can range from milder versions (frequent arguments, disconnection for long periods of time) to more extreme versions (abuse or neglect).

Which relationships would you say are currently under the most distress right now?

  • Friends: Distress in friendships can sometimes show up as bullying, inconsistency in connecting, jealousy, or difficulty overcoming differences.
  • Romantic: Relationship difficulties may include infidelity, communication issues, issues with intimacy, or disagreeing on future goals or the course of the relationship.
  • Family: Family distress may include balancing home, work, and school demands, unequal division of chores, distance from family, or constant arguments.

Coping Tips For Relationship Distress

  • Assertive Communication: Assertive communication refers to being able to express your needs in a way that is clear, without making someone else feel badly for having thoughts, feelings, or opinions that are different than yours. Practicing assertive communication increases the likelihood that the person you are speaking with will be able to hear and understand what you are expressing. It also helps to decrease the chance of defensiveness interfering with communication.
    • Assertiveness takes time to practice, and often times we tend to be either passive or aggressive when we communicate with others, which can hurt our relationships. Can you provide examples of when you saw passive or aggressive communication hurt a relationship? How might the person have communicated more assertively?
  • Compromise: In reality, no one is right all the time, and we cannot always have everything the way we want it. Knowing when to be assertive and stick to your position, but also when to compromise for the sake of a relationship, is a useful skill to cultivate. Compromise does not mean that you have to keep score of who gave in and when, but rather that you recognize that other people bring things to the table, and sometimes it’s okay to honor that.
    • What does it take for you to compromise with someone else? Are you more focused on the facts of a situation or how your values tie into the disagreement? Do you tend to want to collaborate or to prove your point?

Helpful Activities

  • Staying Present. One helpful way to build a positive connection with someone is to give them your undivided attention as much as possible. This can be difficult to do because our brains move really fast when processing information. However, staying focused on the person you are talking with can not only help to communicate interest, but also help make sure you are receiving the information accurately.
    • Are you aware of your body language when you interact with someone?
    • Where does your mind go when someone is speaking to you about a difficult subject?
    • What needs to change about these things so you can be more present with the people you care about?
  • Four Antidotes. The four antidotes are used to combat the four horsemen that may show up during conflict: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, stonewalling.
  1. Criticism refers to attacking someone’s personality or character. The antidote to criticism is using “I” statements to express your needs rather than attacking the other person.
  2. Contempt is attacking someone’s sense of self with the intent to psychologically abuse them. The antidote to contempt is practicing gratitude and recognizing when someone has taken positive actions.
  3. Defensiveness is an attempt to make yourself a victim to escape blame. The antidote for defensiveness is owning your mistakes and being willing to apologize for any wrongdoings.
  4. Stonewalling is an extreme form of withdrawal to create emotional distance and that communicates disapproval. The antidote for stonewalling is engaging in activities that are self-soothing, such as taking a break, engaging in deep breathing, tensing and relaxing muscles.
    • Can you think of times when the four horsemen were present in your relationship?
    • How about times did you use the four antidotes?
    • What is your plan for using the four antidotes in the future?
    • How will you introduce the four horsemen when you notice they are showing up in conflict?
  • Ingredients of Interaction. The ingredients of an interaction refers to all the different layers that take place when you are communicating with someone. By slowing things down, you can start to better understand where breakdowns in communication occur. Over time, you will be able to better understand where things tend to fall apart and intervene earlier. The areas of attention are:
  1. Intake - what information you took in with your five senses
  2. Meaning - how you interpreted the information from intake
  3. Significance - how you feel about the interpretation and how you feel about your feelings
  4. Response - what you say back to the person and how you say it

Think of previous interactions and how you handled them with this formula:

  • Which ingredient is most involved in communication breakdowns for you?
  • How can you address this in the future?