Ever feel like your spouse is stressed all the time–and because of that they’re always short with you?

On Mondays I like to post a reader question and then take a stab at answering it, and today I’ve got one from a woman who says that when they go on vacation the sex and the relationship is amazing. But then as soon as they get home, the relationship falls apart because her husband is so stressed.

reader question icon - 10 Ways to Help a Stressed-Out Spouse

Reader Question

I’ve just celebrated our twentieth anniversary with an amazing overseas trip. We spoiled each other rotten.

But how do we spend such a fabulous time together where the sex is spectacular both physically and emotionally, and then arrive back home and his frustration levels grow to such an extent that it’s impossible to have a conversation?

I’ve treated him with the utmost respect. I haven’t screamed or made unreasonable demands. I did ask him to please refrain from continuously referring to problems he’s facing as they rarely resolve and because of that, I feel useless to help him gain victory which is just debilitating.

To be honest we’ve had 2 major blow outs this year, both after magical weeks of intimacy and then boom! I feel like I’ve prostituted myself. The hardest thing for me is keeping my heart open to our intimate connection.

I’d really value any words of wisdom. If financial pressure is too much (I’m a stay at home Mom), then I would happily forgo the travel lavishing if we could just maintain a steadier relational equilibrium.

Okay, let’s take a stab at this! Once again, I’m only going on the information I have here. I don’t know what their conflicts or about, or what the conflicts look like. I don’t know if he has anger issues or not. But, just going on the information here, a few things occur to me, so here goes!

Most people have reasons behind their actions

This is a simple fact of human behaviour: we do things for a reason.

Therefore, if he’s happy when he’s on vacation, but gets upset at her when he’s at home, there is probably a reason beyond just “he’s a bad person” or “he’s crazy.”

Sheila’s tip: If you start thinking that your husband is being entirely unreasonable and irrational, it’s quite likely there’s something big about this situation that you’re missing.

When people act a certain way, they are often reacting to someone else. Thus, it’s always good to find the trigger and disarm it.

To go along with our first point, if people aren’t islands, that means that they are usually reacting to something that someone else is doing. So if you’re having an issue with someone, the first step should always be to ask: “could I be doing something that is rubbing him the wrong way?” It’s not a comfortable question, but it’s a good one to ask since none of us are perfect, and we all have room to grow. 

Now, it could very well be that in examining yourself you find the answer is “no”. And that may be because of one of two main reasons. First of all, and this is really important to understand, when husbands are emotionally abusive they frequently blame everyone else for their outbursts and never take ownership of their own actions. And that can make the wife and the kids think that they are responsible for causing the problem, even if that’s not true. If you fear you may be an emotionally abusive marriage, then please read this

However, not all stressed out spouses are abusive. There is also the incredibly common issue of displacement

Displacement happens when your spouse may be mad or stressed because of something or someone else and takes it out on you instead. An example might be if he had a rough meeting with his boss and then comes home and screams at the kids. He can’t scream at his boss without getting fired, so he takes it out on someone he can get away with yelling at. That’s displacement. The stress is displaced from its proper target onto someone who is safer to take it out on. 

And there is absolutely nothing you can–or should!–do about this other than simply calling it out when you see it, helping your spouse talk through it, and then drawing boundaries around the unhealthy behaviour. 

If your husband or wife is taking their frustrations with their boss, money, insecurities, or friends out on you, that is an emotionally immature response and does not need to be tolerated by you, your children, or anyone else and is not your fault

Here’s a quick example from my daughter Rebecca and how she is working through this in her marriage: 

In our marriage, I’m the stressed out one and my husband is actually quite emotionally stable and laid-back. Displacement has been a huge issue I’ve had to face in our marriage. 

When we first got married, I was doing my honors thesis in my final year of university. It was incredibly, incredibly stressful. I often found that after particularly long or hard days at the lab I’d come home and everything Connor did ticked me off–even things I normally would find cute or endearing. 

I’d snap at him, he’d get hurt, and it raised the tension level in our marriage significantly. And both of us felt like the victims in this–I was so stretched thin and at the end of my rope that I honestly didn’t think that I could handle any of Connor’s silliness but was so overwhelmed and felt out of control, and he felt like I was telling him that he wasn’t good enough and was yet another source of stress in my life. 

Luckily we’re both psychology grads so we labelled what was happening as displacement quite quickly. But it wasn’t until we had that conversation and honestly talked about how it was unfair that I was taking my stress and anger out on Connor that we were able to start building up the healthy coping mechanisms that I was lacking. We were able to problem-solve because I didn’t want to snap at him and he was tired of being my emotional punching bag. But in order to grow more emotionally mature, I had to be faced with the fact that what I was doing was wrong, and that Connor was not going to take it anymore. 

 Sheila’s tip: Look honestly at yourself and the overall context of your spouse’s life to figure out what the trigger points for his/her stress are. Then work through what needs to change–modify your own behaviour, create some better systems to reduce trigger points, or start building up healthy coping mechanisms so that when stress comes it is properly dealt with. 

You need to allow your spouse to be honest about their stress–but you don’t need to be their emotional crutch.

Here’s what I think is going on from a cursory reading of this letter: they have a great time when they’re on vacation because the work world and everyday pressures are gone. But when those pressures are back, he’s stressed.

When you’re dealing with chronic stress, it can start to feel so big and overwhelming that you just need to get it out and talk about it. And your spouse can be a huge help with this! 

I’m concerned that this woman may not be allowing her husband to have that space to just vent.

She said,

I’ve treated him with the utmost respect. I haven’t screamed or made unreasonable demands. I did ask him to please refrain from continuously referring to problems he’s facing as they rarely resolve and because of that, I feel useless to help him gain victory which is just debilitating.

It seems as if her main concern here is that SHE feels debilitated by the fact that he has problems that don’t seem to have solutions. But if she feels debilitated by that, imagine how HE feels! They’re his problems, after all. They’re things that he has to face at work every single day. That kind of stress is horrible to go through day after day.

If you have a stressed-out spouse, you have the opportunity to be their oasis. You can be that person who helps them recover from a hard day at work and they feel rejeuvinated and ready to face the next day. Being willing to enter the horrible stress, anxiety, and depression that your burnt-out spouse is dealing with is one of the most meaningful, selfless things you can do. 

Now here’s a caveat: being your spouse’s listening ear is important, but if there is never any action to make it better or cope better, talking can become more about the stressed out spouse unloading their emotional burdens onto the other. That’s not fair–you can ask your spouse to join you in the middle of the mess, but you can’t just dump it on your spouse without any willingness to try to fix the problem or find ways to handle it better. But it’s also not fair to expect your spouse to just be able to switch the stress off and fix it immediately–often spouses who are experiencing long-term stress are burnt out and just simply don’t have as many emotional resources to help them find solutions. 

You need to have patience, but you don’t need to enable. If work is really that bad, brainstorm about how he/she may be able to find a new job, or how you could downsize so he/she could afford to take a lower paying, but much less stressful, job. If there are mental health issues or severe burnout involved, it is not unfair or unloving to insist that your spouse sees a licensed counsellor to help learn some healthy coping mechanisms.

Jumping in to fix the problem, however, when you’re not willing to enter into the horribleness with your spouse, can feel very dismissive. It says, “I am frustrated that your pain is inconveniencing me and I’m not willing to put up with it.” So before you start offering the solutions, make sure that you truly listen to your spouse’s heart. Hear the pain, the stress, the hopelessness they are feeling. Dive into it with them, mourn with them, and then work to build up a better life together.

If your spouse really isn’t willing to do anything other than complain, it is very appropriate to draw boundaries around that. People struggling with mental health issues often get into very negative spirals where they can talk about all the negative things in life but don’t have any energy or motivation to fix them.

You could say something like, “I know this hurts, I know this is hard, and I hate seeing how much this is affecting you. But we can’t live like this forever, so we need to try to find some solutions. If you just don’t feel like you can right now, then we need to talk to a licensed counsellor, and that is OK, too. But we need to have some hope that this will get better. So unless you are willing to see a counsellor or put some action steps into place, I’m sorry but I can’t just be an emotional dumping ground without any hope of it getting better when there are steps we could take to limit your stress. I will support you forever, but I’m not willing to just let you be so unhappy all the time and not even try to make it better.” 

Sheila’s tip: don’t withdraw or get upset if your spouse seems stressed, but enter into your spouse’s experience and work together towards healing, drawing boundaries when necessary.

Become a safe place for your spouse to work through his/her stress

Look, a lot of us are married to spouses who have stress. Sometimes it’s stress over potential job loss. Sometimes it’s stress because of toxic relationships at work. Sometimes it’s just simply the stress of the job. My husband has a LOT of stress at his work. He’s a pediatrician and often has to make life and death decisions. He sometimes can’t sleep and often has nightmares that he’ll do exactly the wrong thing. It’s scary. And I can never really understand it completely because I’m not a doctor (though I have this recurring nightmare where he gets paged in the middle of the night to come to a delivery for a premature baby and he sends me instead because he doesn’t want to go, and then I remember that I forgot to go to medical school and grab his textbooks before I jump in the car).

Here’s the question: What are you going to do to help your spouse through stress?

A few quick tips:

How to help a stressed-out husband or wife so you can come through it stronger!

10 Tips for Helping Your Spouse Through Stress

Now here are 10 practical ways you can help your spouse go through stress:

1. DON’T express displeasure when your spouse is upset. Say something like, “you look like something’s bothering you. Do you want to go for a walk and talk about it?” rather than “why are you always so down?” or “can’t you just enjoy the family?”

2. DO allow them to process things with you. When they start talking, say something like, “tell me more about that” or “how did that make you feel”?

3. DON’T try to fix the problem. Just because there isn’t an immediate solution or an obvious course of action doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about it. Sometimes the point is the talking, not the fixing.

4. DON’T enable hopelessness speak. Ranting and venting is one thing, but what we think and say becomes what we believe and how we act. So if your spouse starts saying things like, “I’ll never be able to get through this,” or “I just don’t think I’ll ever feel better,” nip those in the bud and talk about it or have your spouse see a counsellor.

5. DO express confidence that your spouse can handle this. Say things like, “I know you’ll make the right decision”, or “I’m so impressed that you managed to keep your cool” or “I think you’re handling this really well.”

6. DO use empathetic language. I don’t mean you should baby your spouse, but do use soothing words like, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” or “Just remember that I love you so much.” Those words can be like a balm on an open wound. 

7. DO ask if you can pray or help. Start the day by saying, “what’s one specific thing I can pray for you today?” And ask your spouse, “If there’s ever anything I can do to make it easier, even if it’s just researching other jobs or anything for you, let me know. I want to help, but I don’t want to do something that would make the situation even more awkward.”

8. DO keep having sex. Seriously! It’s a great stress reliever. Sometimes guys who are stressed find their libidos shut down. But if your husband is still willing, or still interested if you do the seducing, then do the seducing! Instead of getting upset because he may not initiate as much, you start initiating. It can be one of the best ways to help him feel close, strong, and powerful.

9. DO help your family home be a place of rest. If your spouse is dealing with chronic stress at work, make an effort to have non-work time be a time of rest. Say no to planning too many busy weekends, keep the house as clean as you can (one of my son-in-laws tricks when Rebecca gets stressed is just to clean the bathroom–it makes a huge difference!), and get in a habit of getting out and doing things together, whether it’s just walks in the park or playing soccer with the kids. 

10. DO call out good days when they happen. Very few people experience 100 bad days in a row. But when you’re chronically stressed, it’s hard to see the good days because the bad just seem so big and scary. So when a good day happens, call it out. Mention, “Hey, you seemed really happy today. It was so great to see that,” or ask, “What was so different about today that made it good? Let’s try to do that more often.” Learning to notice good days when they happen is an important step to getting over chronic stress or burnout. 

Now let me know in the comments: Has your spouse ever gone through a period of stress or burnout? How did you handle that period of your marriage?

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - 10 Ways to Help a Stressed-Out Spouse Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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