February 13, 2020

This Valentine's Day, give your sweetheart the gift of relationship serenity with these research-backed tips

Every relationship goes through its ups and downs, its twists and turns. Adding stress from work, school, family, money and health can make the daily bumps in the road feel like a roller coaster ride.

How can you help your relationships — romantic or not — stay healthy and meaningful in today’s high-stress, fast-paced environment? Arizona State University’s own scientific Cupid, Ashley Randall, an associate professor of counseling and counseling psychology in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, examines how couplesEditor's Note: Throughout this story, the word “couple” refers to any paired relationship. can cope with stress in the context of relationships. Her research investigates the impact of stressful experiences on individual well-being and couples’ emotional regulation.

Based on her expertise and research experience, Randall wants you to keep these things in mind as Valentine’s Day nears:

1. Even if you’re single, keep reading

All relationships, romantic or not, can benefit from reflection. Randall says that roommates, co-workers and friends can maintain their relationships similarly to romantic partners because they contain many of the same key ingredients.

2. Know when to leave it at the door

Stress outside of a relationship commonly manifests as stress inside of a relationship if the stress is not compartmentalized properly.

“Stress that we experience outside of our relationship impacts the relationship even if we’re not thinking about it or recognizing that it does,” Randall said.

She encourages partners to recognize whether a stressor is external (originating from outside the relationship) or internal (originating from inside the relationship), work to identify where the stress comes from and then cope with it appropriately. Bringing stress that is rooted in friendships, work, school, etc. into the relationship can create a spill-over effect that creates or worsens relationship problems.

So, if your co-worker was annoying at work today or the traffic on the way home was atrocious, recognize this and try to communicate this stress in a way that your partner can hear instead of taking it out on them.

3. Step into their shoes, not on their toes

Though you haven’t gone through the same trials and tribulations as your partner, Randall affirms that partners can still connect with the sentiments and feelings surrounding a situation to help navigate through hardships together.

"Someone does not have to have the same lived experience to provide the support their partner needs. It really falls on the basis of understanding,” Randall said. “Partners should connect with the feelings that arise from the situation, not necessarily the situation it stems from.”

4. Replace ‘I’ with ‘we’

When couples, friends or colleagues use plural pronouns to talk about their relationship, it is a good indicator of a shared identity.

“Couples are able to help one another cope with stressors when they are able to conceptualize the stressor or challenge as something they both have to face together," Randall said. “Couples that are able to (use ‘we’ language) have better outcomes.”

She adds: “Unity is key.”

5. Identify your stress language

You might know your love language, but do you know your “stress language”?

Upward of 93% of human communication is nonverbal. Body language, facial expressions, auditory sounds and written communication methods can all convey stress without a word having been spoken.

“If I come home after a long, stressful day of work and I am avoiding conversation and am not able to verbalize that stress, I am still communicating my stress in other ways,” Randall said.

The key is understanding how you communicate your stress and how your partner communicates their stress to facilitate effective communication despite any differences between these “stress languages.”

6. Put your phone down

People are constantly on their phones texting, scrolling through Twitter or Instagram and checking the latest news and emails. People’s increasing reliance on their phones is proving detrimental to relationships.

The problem is so rampant it has a term: technoference — the mere presence of technology decreasing perceptions of relationship quality between individuals.

And for those of us who think multitasking is possible, the science begs to differ. It takes more than 60 seconds for someone to refocus on a conversation after engaging with technology in any form.

“Because we are constantly immersed with technology, we are not having those quality interactions that would be happening if we were sitting face to face,” Randall said. “Put away your cell phones, be present and truly engage in conversation.”

7. Ensure that communication is a two-way street

In real estate it’s all about location, location, location. In relationships it’s all about communication, communication, communication. But what does good communication in a relationship actually entail?

“Healthy communication is being open and honest with whoever you are with,” Randall said.

But speaking openly is only half of the equation. Partners also need to open their ears.

“I can communicate my stress, but if people are not actively listening to me, this isn’t very helpful and constructive. The other person needs to be responsive to whatever it is you are communicating,” she added.

8. Take a hint from the Rolling Stones

When communicating with your partner, you won’t always hear or feel what you want, but you might find you get what you need.

Randall says that good communication doesn’t always present itself as a pleasant conversation where each partner agrees with what the other is saying. Rather, validating each other’s experiences and reflecting together on the deeper meaning of what each person is conveying and moving forward to understand each other's needs is what is important.

9. Lend an ear, not advice

Randall says that when a person complains about a problem or situation, it’s often not about the problem itself, but rather the underlying emotions tied to the situation. Therefore, rather than offering a suggestion on how to fix the problem, provide space for your partner to talk and feel heard.

10. Dig for the deeper questions

What it is the top thing that couples fight about? You may be thinking it could be finances, family, work or even health. None of these are correct. 

Whether it’s a fight that spiraled from deciding what show to watch or not putting down the toilet seat — again, these arguments are often spurred by minor disagreements that aren’t problems in and of themselves. Rather, they represent bigger issues.

“When a couple is arguing about what movie to watch, it often snowballs into ‘You don’t respect my choice’ and ‘You are not listening to me,’" Randall said. “If you think about it, at the core of these fights is the question ‘Are you there for me?’”

Randall encourages couples to look beyond the surface level spats that may occur on a day-to-day basis to resolve the issues deeper down in a relationship. By not sweating the small stuff and instead using energy to uncover and address deeper problems, couples can create a more transparent and effective relationship in the long run.

11. Recognize your position

While working through these tips, Randall encourages you to check your personal position in our social, cultural and economic systems.

As part of her current research, Randall focuses on how external stressors impact relationships for individuals who have a marginalized status. Her lab has found that people of color, women, LGBT couples and other minority populations experience stress at disproportionate rates compared to individuals with perceived privilege. 

“Individuals with marginalized status can experience additional external stressors due to their marginalization in society, such as experiencing discrimination based on one’s sexual or gender minority status," Randall said. "Additional research is needed regarding the long-term effects of these experiences, especially for relationship well-being.”

Randall’s lab has collected pilot data from individuals who hold multiple minority statuses and their partners, including 21 same-gender female couples, in which one partner experienced clinical levels of symptoms of depression. They are currently analyzing the data and will be releasing results in the next few months.

To learn more about Randall’s relationship research, visit the Couples Coping with Stress Lab website.

This research was supported in part by funding from the GLMA Lesbian Health Fund and the National Council on Family Relations.

Written by Maya Shrikant. Top image by Patrick Cheung.