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Can relationships recover from the stress of 2020?

By Maren Voss, ScD, Professional Practice Extension Assistant Professor of Health & Wellness

Stressed couple

The year 2020 has taught us the importance of resilience. And that is true for relationships as much as anything in life.  If you want a resilient relationship for 2021 and beyond, there are a couple ideas you can incorporate.  These methods are backed by the scientific study of happiness at the University of Pennsylvania and can have transformative effects on your relationships.

You may have noticed that some of your friends have pulled together when life got rocky in 2020.  Yet for others, it’s like a war has started at home, alternating between fights and retreating to the fox hole to recover.  Resilient people manage the stress better than most with a set of core abilities they bring to the relationship, and two of these can make all the difference in combatting stress; self-regulation and mental agility.

Self-regulation is simply the ability to calm yourself down and to change your emotional state.  We’ve been practicing this our whole lives, and it’s captured in our idioms to pause and take a breath.  Thomas Jefferson said, “When angry, count to ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.” Our bodies are wired to respond to stress, it’s natural.  Yet if we have been through trauma or recent challenges, that response gets set to rapid-fire on a trip-wire.  This can make us lash out, puts us on edge, overreacting to the slightest nudge.

If we practice self-regulation, we can reset our natural stress response to give our relationships the space they need to breath.  Resolve to take a deep breath before speaking when you feel your emotions flare.  Resolve to count to ten (or a hundred) if you find yourself angry with your loved one.  If there is negative emotion in the relationship, choose to change it.  You may have heard the adage that love is an action as much as it is a feeling.  Choose to take the actions that will change your feeling state to be more positive.  This could mean a gesture of kindness even when you don’t feel like it, saying sorry, or using humor to lighten the mood.

Mental Agility is the ability to think creatively about the problems we face.  A recent stressor for many families was having children at home rather than in school and making major shifts in jobs, daycare, and family roles.  Rigid ideas about whose job it is to handle the household tasks would add to the stress.  But flexible thinking and creative solutions can create an environment where everyone feels supported.  A family promoting homeschool online co-ops, days with dad, mornings with mom, or family Fridays for errands and indoor picnics would be creating an adventure out of a stressful situation.

Stress tends to give us tunnel vision, thinking there is only one way to see or handle the problem.  This can be especially damaging to relationships if we assume bad intentions when something goes wrong. People with mental agility resist that urge to over-simplify and instead ask questions and solicit ideas to better understand. Approaching the challenge together as a couple gives you double the power to come up with new options.  Using mental agility as a couple is one of the best ways to turn road blocks into stepping stones toward a better future.

For a resilient relationship in 2021, practice your powers of calming down and thinking outside of the box when life stress throws you the next curve ball.  The more you practice self-regulation and mental agility, the more resilient you will become.  Hopefully we won’t have another 2020 anytime soon.  But if we do, your relationship will be prepared to whether the storm.