THE BLOG
11/24/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Stress Hurts Relationships and What to Do About It

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Prolonged stress dulls our receptivity to intimate connection. We forget how to love or let love in. We lose our ability to feel, to think, and to act, in cherishing ways and inadvertently push the people we most care about away.

Stress is sensory overload. Love, at its best, is sensory openness.

Our senses -- touch, smell, taste, seeing, hearing, and intuition -- are how we experience ourselves and others. When we are stressed, we lose access to our senses, and therefore lose our ability to connect intimately, and our partners may give up in frustration.

When We Lose "Touch"
We lose access to our sense that is our weakest link first. If it is touch, we are no longer able to differentiate whether a physical connection will be demanding or healing. We encase ourselves in an invisible bubble, shutting the world out in order to cope. If our partner relies on touch to feel loved, we inadvertently send the message that we no longer care.

When We Lose Emotional Availability
When we are stressed, behaviors that would normally be slightly irritating feel like major disruptions. The more protective part of your brain is in fight-flight mode, ready to react or disconnect at a moment's notice. You're tired and wired and any emotional request from your partner is overwhelming. Innocent questions like, "How are you, sweetheart?" bring out irritated reactions: "How do you think I feel? I'm overloaded. Isn't that obvious?" Anger is easy, and patience is in short supply. You're aware that you're reacting poorly, so you promise yourself you'll be better as soon as "things let up."

When Our Thoughts Are Scrambled
When our frontal lobes have been uncharacteristically scrambling to sort ideas and resolve problems, we are unable to share our thoughts with our partners. Our partners, who are used to solving problems together, offer suggestions, hints and support. But because our thinking is off-kilter, we can't trust outside interference as it further confuses us. We invalidate the offers and make our partners feel stupid or inappropriate: "Can't you see I'm trying to figure something out? If I need help, I'll ask you." Your partner is justifiably hurt, rejected, or offended.

When Our 5 Senses Suffer
Some of us lose access to enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of life. A partner who hasn't showered smells sexy when you're balanced, but offensive when you're stressed. A restaurant can't be enjoyed because food just ends hunger, it doesn't awaken the taste buds. Our vision and hearing narrows and we can only focus on solving the immediate problem ahead. We can't listen to stories or details or day's events, nor see beyond what's stressing us out. For example, when we come home stressed and sleepless, and our partner has prepared our favorite dinner, we can't see it. We stare directly ahead and focus on something mundane: "Where's that folder I left on the counter? It was right here. Did you throw it out for God's sake?" Our partner will either try to anticipate our every move to avoid being stung, or will write us off impossible to be satisfied.

When Intuition Loses Insight
Intuition is one of our most crucial capabilities to loving and being loved. The special glances, warm affectionate sounds, and open arms easily fall prey when someone is preoccupied with prolonged worry about something else. We can only pick up subtle facial expressions, voice intonations, and body language when we're tuned in.

Prolonged stress depletes a relationship of its most important components: present-time deep attentiveness and the ability to live in one another's hearts. Stressed-out people cannot maintain those gifts. They forget how to love or allow love to penetrate their preoccupied and pressured world. That disconnect from their own inner experiences transfers into becoming separate from the one they love.

How To Re Connect
The fastest way to de-stress is to get back in touch with your own six senses. It will bring you back into the present.

Take time to breathe and deeply reflect. Remember how sweet it is to touch and be touched. Look at life with your lens wide open, taking in the beauty of all you can see, as would a blind person newly restored to sight. Listen to the sounds that regenerate you; music, laughter, humor, and the sweetness of your lover's voice. Pick things up around you and press them to your face. Take a deep breath and breathe in the memories that emit from their scent. Let yourself taste things you love again. And let your imagination open up to possibilities again, thinking beyond the concrete into all that is possible, and live in the mind and heart of your partner.

Love will return.

Dr. Randi's free advice e-newsletter, Heroic Love, shows you how to avoid the common pitfalls that keep people from finding and keeping romantic love. Based on over 100,000 face-to-face hours counseling singles and couples over her 40-year career, you'll learn how to zero in on the right partner, avoid the dreaded "honeymoon is over" phenomenon, and make sure your relationship never gets boring. www.heroiclove.com

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