49

My girlfriend and I have polar ways of handling stress and conflict.

I come from a very conflict-averse family: when one parent is angry for something (not necessarily for reasons related to the partner), the other one just takes a step back without intervening at all. At the other end of the spectrum, her parents yell at each other and at her over the smallest issue. We took our ways of dealing with conflict after our families.

Regarding stress, I don't build up it very easily, and I don't complain, as I think it's an ineffective way to deal with a problem. I come across as happy and carefree, even if it's not the case. She is the opposite: she's quite vocal about her problems and tends to be stressed out often. You can easily tell when she's angry, there is this distinct "storm approaching" feeling when she passes by.

The combo of these two is that when she's stressed out, she is aggressive and blunt, even if I'm not the source of the stress. While she behaves like this, I paralyze and I don't know how to react to make her feel better. Note that we are both aware of our issues, as we talked through them some times. She's working on reducing her aggressiveness, which was actually way worse some months ago.

Right now she's having an objectively stressful period. She only works two hours very early in the morning, and she has the rest of her day free, but she's too exhausted to do anything substantial. Moreover, we live in a flat together with other six people, most of them being younger than us. So most of the time she's surrounded by guys leading a careless life, being late at night, smoking weed etc, which reminds her even more of her monastic life. The main outcome is that she's completely worn out and has bad days pretty frequently.

This morning she was angry once more, and since I wasn't able to tell her anything to relieve her stress, she accused me of being self-centered and to chicken out every time she needs help. I can't say I completely disagree with her on it.

My question is: How can I respond properly when she stresses out?

The outcomes I desire are:

  • I want her to rely on me when she's stressed.
  • While helping her, I want to handle her aggressiveness and reduce/redirect it so that I don't stress out as well.

The things I already tried and didn't work:

  • Ignoring it - only makes things worse.
  • Leaving her alone - she will sort her problem someway, but it's not really useful from me.
  • Distracting her - she feels like I'm downplaying her reasons to be stressed.
  • 2
    There isn't a one size fits all solution to responding to people when they are stressed. Some people want to be left alone, some want reassurance, some want distraction, etc... Besides too broad platitudes like "talk to your partner about their needs" there isn't a more specific way to answer this question as it is written. – sphennings Feb 28 '18 at 14:38
  • @sphennings, we talked about that in chat a little, OP said the girlfriend said 'she said that it's better for me to speak and be wrong than to shut up completely' ... So I think if that's edited in, we can go? – Tinkeringbell Feb 28 '18 at 14:42
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    Perhaps of interest to you: there are several martial arts which focus on the blending or redirecting of energies. Judo, Aikido, and Tai Chi come to mind, but there are certainly others. The particular skill they tend to teach is how to take someone's energy and redirect it towards what you find to be good. Judo, for instance, teaches how to use their energy to get into a position where they are overextended, and then you apply a tiny amount of extra energy to send them flying. While I don't suggest throwing your SO over your shoulder, the lessons they teach are applicable here. – Cort Ammon Mar 1 '18 at 0:42
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    related :P – Ikaros Mar 1 '18 at 10:08
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    Step 1 is to not live with 6 other people... Living with a romantic partner and other friends/family never goes well in every instance I've seen. You need your privacy and sanity. – coinbird Mar 1 '18 at 22:37
44

You should have a couple of very serious conversations with her about this. There's two general topics which need to be addressed:

1. How you should behave when she's upset.

This is an issue I'm quite familiar with because both my wife and I have a tendency to get angry when stressed or upset. I'm very much aware of that aspect of my personality, have worked hard at holding that response in check, and had a conversation with my wife communicating that I need some space to calm down in those situations:

Sometimes, when I've had a bad day at work, or I'm otherwise upset, I need some space. I need to chill out, blow some enemies away in an online game, read a book, etc. We can talk about it a couple of hours later, but at that moment, just give me some space.

It worked wonders because she then had a "guide" as to how to handle my poor moods.

My wife had a harder time understanding that she was actually behaving the exact same way I was when she was stressed (aka she would take it out on whomever crossed her first). However, she was not aware that she was doing it.

It emerged, over time, that when she's stressed she wants someone close at hand to sympathize with her, but not discuss the difficulties she's facing. I've learned that any constructive feedback or opinions must be voiced at a later time. In the moment, just let her vent and be there for her. That learning process was more difficult because she was not able to explicitly verbalize her needs in those tense situations.

You need to sit down with your girlfriend when you're both calm, and relaxed, unpack her behavior in an objective a manner as possible, and find a solution which allows you to coexist peacefully.

2. Communicate that stress is not an excuse to be abusive with you.

This is the second element to the problem. Any one of us has been in a bad mood at times. Most of us have yearned (only subconsciously, I hope) for an excuse to explosively release that stress.

However, there exists an expectation that as we mature we learn to control that explosive impulse, and grow up. This is tied in closely with emotional intelligence.

We've all witnessed someone throw an incredibly immature, and unprofessional tantrum in the office. Why is throwing a tantrum with your loved ones any more acceptable? And the answer is that it's really not.

Our spouses do not deserve to be treated that way, and if we have a side to ourselves which is, for lack of a better word, vicious, we need to reign it in lest it irreparably damage the trust, and respect that bound the family together.

You need to sit down with your girlfriend, tell her you love her, but express to her that you don't want to live your life with her as her emotional punching bag.

  • 13
    That last sentence is pretty much key – Dark Hippo Mar 1 '18 at 10:15
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    It emerged, over time, that when she's stressed she wants someone close at hand to sympathize with her, but not discuss the difficulties she's facing. This can't be stressed (ha!) enough. – user510 Mar 2 '18 at 11:14
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    @henning - self knowledge is critical when it comes to personal faults. We all have some respect in which we are deficient. For example, if I have knowledge of a chocolate bar within the house the knowledge will haunt me until I've eaten every last bite. The solution? Don't buy chocolate. But until I came to realize that I literally lack all self control in the presence of chocolate I was simply kidding myself. "I'll have just a piece". Or "I'll get the big box of chocolates because it's cheaper per piece! It's really just a better deal!" – AndreiROM Mar 2 '18 at 13:53
  • You know, I really hoped you'd answer my question - I like your way of thinking, first and foremost because you don't indulge in politically correct suggestions. Thank you, I appreciate your answer! – LinuxBlanket Mar 2 '18 at 17:15
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    @linuxblanket - thanks! I too have noticed a trend that can essentially be summarized by a desire to cause the least offence to anyone possible. However, this approach often leaves the person seeking advice on the hook to tolerate some sort of unpleasant behavior. I encourage people to be polite, and understanding, however I also want to treat others as people with agency. In other words, we are all responsible for our actions, and we have to live with the consequences of what we say and do. Pointing out that someone should not necessarily endure that behavior should not be so controversial. – AndreiROM Mar 2 '18 at 18:11
12

Don't solve the problem

You are not your girlfriend. You can't solve her stress yourself; what you want to do is to be a sounding board for her to let off steam, and enable her to solve it herself.

Look at it this way: she's currently stressed; the ideal outcome is to have her calm. What's an awesome way to calm down? Ranting about stuff! That doesn't mean she needs to be ranting about you or at you, though.

You said you've tried ignoring it, leaving her alone, and distracting her. If none of those work, the only reasonable option left that I can see is to address the stress head-on. Sit down with her, and simply ask "what's getting your goat?". Let her rant about it for as long as she needs; when there's a gap in the rant, interject with some short sympathetic phrase to let her know you're listening - "that sucks", or "I bet that's frustrating", or something similar.

Bear in mind: what she wants may well not be to solve the problem. I come up against this a lot; if someone tells me about a problem, I tend to want to solve it. That's not always the best option, though - much of the time, just being a supportive ear is best. Let her know that if there is anything you can do then you're happy to help, but otherwise just listen and sympathise.

What if she lashes out at you? If she lashes out while she's stressed, try to ignore it. She's stressed and probably needs to vent; you were the unfortunate outlet for it, but bringing it up while she's still stressed out about other things probably won't end well. (That doesn't mean do nothing, though - if she's really laying into you, of course you calmly say that's not okay and be prepared to walk away until she calms down.)

Later, when she's calmed down, you can have a talk about lashing out.

Hey, I know you were stressed earlier, but lashing out at me upsets me. I'm doing my best to help, but if there's anything I can do better, can you tell me about it?

That is - remind her that you're not the source of the problem, and that you are trying to help; then, rope her into helping you help her. With any luck, that'll spark a useful conversation about how you can help her.

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    What bugs me is that you only focus on the GF's well being. Some people get nasty when they're angry, and while we may wish to be diplomatic, & address the behavior at a later time, you're essentially advising that the OP just take it. "If she lashes out while she's stressed, try to ignore it" <- this can only go so far. At one point she will have to control her abusive impulses. Kids also lash out when angry, but we teach them that it's wrong. Same principle applies here. You advise the OP to ask "if there's anything I can do better" ... how about what the GF could do better? – AndreiROM Mar 2 '18 at 14:23
9

I can relate so much with this question. I had very similar experiences to your partner while growing up and as a result I became stressful and with low frustration tolerence myself. I used to lash out to my partner too, but now we are much better as we have decided to get better for each other. I don't always succeed, but I am finally aware of my problem as does your partner and I've taken many steps to overcome it.

In order to avoid bursts of anger we have tried the following:

  1. My partner told me exactly what you quoted: "I want you to rely on me when you are stressed. Communicate your problem to me if you want to or just how you feel and I will try to make you feel better. " That is sweet and reassuring even if she cannot do exactly that when she is down. Anyway it's much better than ignoring the issue. People who haven't been exposed to quarrels in their life think of it as a big deal and try to avoid it as much as they can, but believe me this is not a solution. Besides, she's still your girlfriend, her feelings don't change who she is.

  2. Don't ask "What's wrong", "What happened to anger you", "Why are you like that/angry" etc. It's like you blame someone for their feelings. They also might not be fully aware how or what exactly their feelings and thougts are at the moment which may add to their frustration.

  3. Physical affection. She might seem like she is not in the mood, but a hug is very soothing. She won't take the initiative when she is stressed, so you should give it a try. At least it works for me. It makes me feel that the other person is on my side and sometimes I imidiately 'break' and start to talk about my problem. Sometimes it makes many tries though. And keep in mind that you shouldn't expect her to be affectionate too.

  4. Anger and stress is sometimes masked sadness. Keep that in mind and don't be 'afraid' of approaching her. What would you do if she was sad?

  5. Take a walk with her. Being in a small room when you feel your emotions chocking you makes you more depressed. Given the situation in your apartment, I think she really needs to escape for a while.

  6. When she's calmed down and talked about her problem and you've comforted her, tell her how YOU feel. That you care about her but won't tolerate aggressiveness. It's not healthy and she should do something about it if she wants to be happy (a therapist is a good idea or just working it by herself). Express all this in an affectionate but firm manner. I think she will understand that respect is necessary regardless of one's mood.

Hope I helped!

  • 2
    +1 especially for #3. People (girls in particular) get very comforted by physical touch of people they know and like. And then for #5, for multiple reasons, the first of which is that walking itself reduces stress by a great deal. I'm a bit unsure about #6 though, that one needs some very careful thinking! – yo' Mar 1 '18 at 8:57
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    I disagree about 'girls in particular'. All people like it by the circumstances you mention. Give boys some love too! #6 Worked for me, after I recovered from my fit and was able to think about my partner and not only MY problems. As long as it is expressed in an affectionate matter - I will edit accordingly. – clueless Mar 1 '18 at 9:10
  • The boys/girls in #3 is more complicated, but I in general agree with you: we boys need some touching, too :) As for #6, I think it's valid, just not that universal. – yo' Mar 1 '18 at 9:13
  • "People who haven't been exposed to quarrels in their life think of it as a big deal and try to avoid it as much as they can". This describes me perfectly. I've quarrelled more in the last 6 months of my life than in the previous 26 years. Thank you for your insights, especially for #1 and #4! – LinuxBlanket Mar 1 '18 at 9:42
4

You've done the most important part, and that's to identify (when she's not angry), that you have different ways of dealing with stress and conflict and they aren't necessarily compatible, and one isn't superior to the other.

With that being said, it's important to find a resolution that works for you. Us more laid back, passive people tend to just find partners that don't do that, but I do know relationships can work.

1) Discuss with her when she isn't angry what the best way to support her when she is angry is. Chances are, she doesn't know either, (almost certainly she doesn't). So, start making a list of everything you think you'd like to try and document it, because as a comment above says, this isn't a one-size fits all situation.

2) Follow through. Try to work through your list of possible ways you can support her while redirecting the anger away from yourself. Document the outcome, if it's positive, negative, if it made things worse, if it made things better, but not much better, etc.

3) Discuss the outcomes with her, tell her you're doing your best and you realize that it isn't her fault that she isn't able to look at things objectively when she's angry. Discuss your list with her, show it to her, try and help her understand that you're doing all of this because you DO care and want to be able to help her unwind.

All of those will help you find a solution that works for you, but I would strongly, strongly suggest that you don't ever frame it as keeping it from stressing you out. That may be the goal, but helping her find a way to deal with her stress and anger is something you should do because you care about her. The fact that it has a beneficial side effect for you isn't the important bit. You should help your partner grow and become a better person regardless of whether the specific behavior is a problem for you or not.

  • 1
    Thank you for the "scientific" approach, this really resonates with me! As a side note, I don't want to stress out when she explodes because when I do I can't think straight and I can't support her. So we definitely agree on doing things because I care for her ^^ – LinuxBlanket Mar 1 '18 at 9:48
4

When someone prone to stress starts to worry about something, they believe they have a legitimate concern. As a calmer person you may not consider it to be serious, or serious enough to warrant worrying about. But if you respond in a way that makes it seem like you are dismissing her concern, it will only make her more stressful.

To illustrate: just imagine that you look out of your window and see a lion prowling around in your garden. You tell your partner, but by the time they come to the window, the lion is out of sight. If they told you that "you must have imagined it", you wouldn't accept that, right? That wouldn't make the situation calmer. In fact you'd now be more worried that because they didn't believe you they might casually walk out into the garden and get mauled or eaten! On the other hand, if they said "Okay, I didn't see it but let's close and lock all the doors as a precaution" this would calm the situation somewhat, because even though they didn't see what you saw they have taken you seriously and made a positive step to make the situation better.

The causes of her stress are genuine concerns, at least to her. You won't make things better by dismissing them.

With this in mind, things to avoid saying to a stresshead:

  • "That's not a problem"
  • "Stop worrying"
  • "It's not that bad"

You don't need to fix her problems, but you are more likely to help her calm down if you acknowledge them.

Instead tell her that you understand the problem, and try to use questions to help her along a logical path to find her own solution.

The only disclaimer to this advice is that as you mentioned smoking weed, this may hamper her thought process. She will need a clear head to think through a problem logically.

  • Oh, she is not the one smoking weed, our flatmates do :) thanks for the advice about the things not to do! – LinuxBlanket Feb 28 '18 at 22:40
4

What I find works best in de-escalating a high-temper situation is simply asking "what can I do to help?" Don't try to solve her problem for her, especially if it's something that can't be dealt with immediately. If someone at work is stressing her out or she has an issue looming over her head, trying to provide solutions that she's probably already thought about herself is only going to frustrate her more.

Asking her what you can do to reduce the current stress will focus her energy into thinking about what can be done to get out of the current firestorm of aggression. It could be a massage or making a cup of tea or just doing something productive. But continuing to talk about whatever is stressing her out is only going to make the aggression worse - find a way to do something more productive now!

2

If you believe that stress makes her aggressive, then one way of dealing with it is to relieve stress. However, I'm afraid that whether you try to console her or back out and give her some space, the outcome is the same - she gets angry, aggressive and maybe accusatory.

If this seems to be part of her personality, perhaps she could start working on this issue with the help of a therapist.

If this seems to be temporary behavior caused by current state of things she considers poor, then she needs to work on improving her situation.

Finally, she may be developing some mental issues. Again, external help may be needed.

As you can see, all of it comes back to her and not you. Unless you are the actual reason for any of her life shortcomings, she needs to man up a little and then perhaps you can support and encourage her.

1

I can give you advice from personal experience with very similar circumstances. I'm sure some of it is repeating what others have said, but hopefully it's got a little different viewpoint or is easier to make sense of, since these kinds of things are highly personal and there's no blanket solution that fits everyone.

One of your last lines in the post is very revealing about how these situations play out and how you each view it:

This morning she was angry once more, and since I wasn't able to tell her anything to relieve her stress, she accused me of being self-centered and to chicken out every time she needs help. I can't say I completely disagree with her on it.

Right there I can tell that she is looking for some sort of validation about the way she feels, and you're reluctant to say anything that could be construed as agreement.

What you've got to understand is that acknowledging how she feels and simply understanding why she feels that way does not necessarily mean you agree with her. You're allowed to disagree. But she's not asking for agreement, she's just basically looking for someone to listen and say "I see why that upsets you." She has every right to feel the way she feels about things, and whether or not you feel the same is moot.

Where it gets difficult is if she expects you to take action on something. It's not entirely clear if that's the case here but I imagine it could at least be implied. Once you've acknowledged how she feels and let her vent about her frustrations, if there's still a lingering "So what are you going to do about it", then things have to be handled a little more on a case-by-case basis. If it's something you can compromise over, do it. If it's something you are strongly opposed to, now is the time to calmly state why you disagree (expect this to potentially cause more frustration, there's nothing you can do about it at that point). She might try to beat down your opposition to whatever she's asking, but you are well within your rights to simply disagree, you don't have to hold your argument up to judicial screening.

That's where a relationship can be "make-or-break", is if you two can disagree strongly with each other but still live with it. At this point things can get a whole lot more complicated, far too complicated for this to answer (that would deserve an entirely new question).

tl;dr

From what I can tell based on the subtext of your question, 90% of what she's looking for is simple validation that she is allowed to feel upset about whatever is going on. Probably only 10% of her frustration has to do with you actually doing something about it. You sound like you're fairly unresponsive to her complaints because you don't feel the same way she does, but simply acknowledging and understanding her feelings doesn't mean you have to agree with them or take any action to fix the problem.

In conclusion

Simple phrases like "I hear you" and "I see why that upsets you" go a very long way to helping someone feel that you care about them and their point of view. Start there. Don't try to offer solutions, and definitely don't try to invalidate how she feels. I think that bit of advice alone will vastly improve the situation and make her feel like you actually care. A quick warning though is that even something that simple takes practice, so keep your eyes and ears open and don't expect a miracle right away, but don't give up. It's an incredibly valuable skill to have in life in general, not just in a relationship.

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