SGR 025 | SOS: How to Handle a Stressed Out Spouse


‘Tis the season - to be stressed out.

Between family commitments, end-of-year work deadlines, and getting things done for the holidays - it’s prime time to be super overwhelmed.

We talked last week about the importance of self-care and that self-care, in fact, equals partner care. What about when one of your is feeling pretty good and the other is stressed out?

It can be really hard to see your spouse struggling. It can be even harder when they won’t accept your help or advice. So, what do you do?

You don’t offer help or advice.

It’s not your job!

In those moments, your partner needs you to be an emotional support and excellent listener. They need to know that you’re in their corner and are able to handle their stressed out state. On this week’s episode, we’re talking about:

  • What it’s like when your partner is stressed out
  • How your relationship feels when one of you is stressed
  • What makes it hard to be supportive
  • How to get your partner to let you in
  • When to be an empath and when to be a cheerleader
  • Creating a culture of emotional reciprocity in your relationship

Be sure to download this week’s bonus - 3 Steps to Supporting a Stressed Out Spouse - for a step-by-step breakdown of what this looks like.



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Show Notes:

SGR 001 - Communication that (Actually) Works
SGR 013 - When Marriage Doesn’t Feel Like A Fairy-Tale
SGR 017 - Talking About The Scary Stuff: Being Vulnerable
SGR 019 - Fight-Proof Your Next Big Event
SGR 023 - Logic vs. Feelings - And the Winner Is...
SGR 024 - Why Self Care = Partner Care

Short on time? Here’s a list of today’s topics and when to listen:

What it’s like for you when your partner is stressed out - 2:18
How your relationship is affected when one of you is super stressed - 5:20
What makes it hard to be supportive in those moments - 8:04
How to get your partner to let you in - 12:26
When to be an empath and when to be a cheerleader - 19:22
How to create a culture of emotional reciprocity in your relationship - 22:43
Meredith and Marina’s takeaways - 26:52


Meredith: Hey there and welcome to episode twenty five of the Simply Great Relationships podcast. We’re so glad you could join us. I’m Meredith SIlversmith and this is Marina Voron. And today, we are talking about “How to Handle a Stressed Out Spouse”.

Marina: I think we’ve all been there.

Meredith: I was gonna say we don’t deal with that ever, right? We’re more like our husbands don’t deal with that ever, right? No, not at all. We’ll be covering what’s it like for you when your partner is stressed out, what’s it like for your partner when you’re really stressed out, how your relationship is affected when one of you is super stressed, what makes it hard to be supportive in those moments, how to get your partner to let you in which is sometimes challenging, when to be an empath and when to be a cheerleader, and how to create a culture of emotional reciprocity in your relationships. So it’s the really good stuff today. It’s a good topic. Make sure you stay with us until the very end because we’ve got a great bonus for you and we’re gonna tell you how to get it.

Marina: So, this is, I think, one that’s near and dear to both our hearts.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: So what’s it like when our partners are stressed out? How are they feeling? I think this is an important question because we know how we feel when we’re stressed out.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: But I think a lot of times, we think our partners experience stress much differently.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: Right? So, what’s it like when our partners are stressed out?

Meredith: Probably overwhelming, frustrating, they don’t wanna feel that way. I think that’s what like it’s forgotten because sometimes the way it affects the other partner, we feel like, “Uh! I don’t want to deal with this.” But you have to keep in mind, your partner isn’t choosing to feel that way. They don’t wanna feel stressed.

Marina: Yeah! It’s almost like when that really jerky part of you comes out.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: Just get over it.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: If you don’t wanna feel that way, just stop.  

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: A little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Meredith: Yeah! That would be really nice if that worked. They don’t want to feel that way and they don’t want you to see them feeling that way either I think. What about you? What do you think?

Marina: Yeah! I agree especially when the not wanting you to see them feel that way, is really tied to this concept of they don’t necessarily always wanna be vulnerable because I think we all wanna be perceived as strong and calm and even not needing so much. And I think when our partners are stressed, they don’t wanna be perceived as needy. So it’s like managing that on top of the stress is a lot to manage.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: I think, like a sense of hopelessness and a really common one is irritability and you know, it’s okay when I do it but it’s not okay when you do it.

Meredith: Of course! Of course!

Marina: How does it impact you when you see your partner’s stressed out? I know Tom goes through really crazy times with his work.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: So how does it impact you when you see him stressed out?

Meredith: Well, Tom’s an accountant so a little thing called tax season comes around, it’s pretty insane. I definitely get frustrated sometimes. I wanna solve his problem. Wanna help him feel better. I want him to be happy when he comes home and catch up and all the things we haven’t been able to do. And when that doesn’t work, I feel kind of helpless and kind of hopeless. Like, “Oh, well, there’s not really anything I can do other than sit with the stress.” And I’m probably a little more able to move to that place because I’m a therapist than I think someone else maybe.  But, it’s definitely challenging.

Marina: Yeah, for sure! And what’s it like, how does your relationship overall feel when one of you is stressed out?

Meredith: It’s tough. It’s like there is some third party who is involved like a third someone showed up to the party that nobody invited and you’re like “Ugh! You’re kinda messing up the situation over here!”

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: What about for you guys?

Marina: It feels like there’s this uphill battle that the relationship is fighting and it feels like the relationship has issues when it doesn’t and it’s like living on negativity island. It takes it to the negative sentiment override and what I hear from a lot of the couples that I work with is, they’ll say, “It feels like my partner hates me. It feels like there’s a disconnect.” They’ll start to question the integrity of their whole relationship.

Meredith: Yup!

Marina: Based on one person’s stress and usually it’s an external stress and that’s a really, really sucky situation to be in because you’re giving so much power to this external thing and I know with George and I, he worked for a guy that caused him a lot of stress and it came into our relationship because George would come home stressed. I feel like I’m very empathic but I’m also a human with finite capabilities for empathy and I just wanted to murder this guy. I was like, “How do you have so much power in my relationship right now?”

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: It’s so not fair. So I would say that’s the impact I feel like it has on relationships.

Meredith: Yeah! It’s very real. And I think that’s what makes it so important to name it for what it is and to communicate with your partner if you are feeling stressed and to know what’s going on in each other’s world because if you don’t have that context, if you’re seeing your partner being really irritable and short with you but you don’t have the context if they’re having a hard time with their boss or they are really stressed about a family member, you’re gonna take it personally and you’re gonna attribute it to your partner’s feelings about you or the relationship and that brings you really quickly into a negative space.

Marina: Mhmm! So, what makes it hard to be supportive?

Meredith: Well, our own feelings, right? Just as our partner doesn’t want to be stressed, we don’t want to be stressed either and we don’t want to be exposed to, would that be a second hand stress?

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: Third hand stress? You know, and frustration and all of that that comes in dealing with someone who’s stressed out. I think that gets in our way. But in reacting to that, you know, being reactive in the moment to what we’re getting on the surface before we get to what’s underneath it, it’s easy to be reactive.

Marina: Yeah! Definitely! I also think our innate desire to problem solve. We all love when there’s problem A intervention B solution C. and it’s beautifully linear with no deviations but the reality is stress is an emotion.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: You can’t solve an emotion. There is no solution to an emotion other than kind of processing through it and coming to some sort of peace with it.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: But when our partners are stressed and that triggers us, we really want to problem solve. Like, “No! There is this guy that’s causing you to be stressed out. It’s causing our relationship to feel stressful. It’s causing me to stress out. Solution: kill the guy.”

Meredith: Yeah! “Take it back to the beginning. What’s the source of the stress?”

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: Yeah! And it’s very frustrating especially in the situation like that where it wasn’t a time stress or where this is happening over and over again daily. It’s an everyday occurrence overtime that’s really hard.  And you can start to feel like, “God! This is not what I signed up for. I did not sign up to be stressed all the time or to manage my partner’s stress all the time and it’s really overwhelming!”

Marina: Mhmm! Also, not knowing what to do and how to be effective and I think this kind of ties to problem solving. A lot of times, we just don’t know and we feel that there is that role ambiguity or role confusion and you feel like, “Well, If I was a good partner, I’d just know what to do.”

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: That really self deprecating narrative for yourself. And it brings up so many feelings of inadequacy, of doubt, of compatibility, like, “Am I a good partner? If was a good partner, I’d know what to do. If I was a good partner, my husband would be walking around with a giant smile on his face regardless of whatever stress he faces.” And that can be a really, really hard place to live in for yourself to deal with that sort sense of inadequacy.

Meredith: Yeah! And the reality is you’re not that powerful.

Meredith: Unfortunately!

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: I wish we all had the power, right? To just flip a switch in, totally influence your partner, you know, for the better. But, you can’t. And also, that feeling of disconnect. Depending on how stressed your partner is and how they cope with stress, you may feel that your partner’s not letting you in.

Marina: Mhmm!

Meredith: Like you’re not involved in their world and you don’t necessarily know what’s going on and that can really be unsettling as well.

Marina: Yeah! And I see this a lot when people reach a really high level of stress and overwhelm. And it’s not even that they’re shutting out their partner. It’s that they are so flooded that there’s almost no room is how I describe it for their partner to be let in.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: Because they go on to shut down mode. It’s almost like you are going powering down and going into self preservation mode because you’re so overwhelmed and there’s no room to let your partner in. But as a partner, it can be so, so hard. It’s almost rejecting. Like, “Here I am yearning for you to feel better and you’re not letting me in.”

Meredith: Mhmm! So, how do you get your partner to let you in?

Marina: So, I think that’s a really, really valuable question. I think a really good way to start that’s kind of calm and keeping it at a very manageable level is to start by seeding your own kind of observations and hypothesis. Sometimes, like, “I’m here for you whenever you need me. Just come to talk to me whenever you need. You know I’m always your cheerleader and I’m always so supportive and I’m always there for you.” One, it’s like a whole bunch of word jumble. It really means nothing. And two, it’s like if your partner tends to be more on the logical side or isn’t super great with verbalizing their emotions, they’re never gonna take you up on that and also, that’s not the best approach for them. A big part of their struggle could be, “I can’t name what’s going on for me right now.” So, giving that invitation is redundant. Right?

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: But approaching it with this like, “You know, the past couple of nights, I’ve noticed that you’ve come home and you’ve just had this look on your face, like you’re so overwhelmed and there’s so much going on for you and I felt kinda shut out and I know that’s not usually how you interact. I wonder if there’s something that’s really stressing you out at work.”

Meredith: Mhmm! Yeah!

Marina: You know, that actually gives them a bit of platform to say, “Hon, you know what? There is.”

Meredith: Yeah! It’s opening the door in a way that’s very non-critical, non-judgemental, very safe and giving them an opportunity to share with you which ultimately what you want.

Marina: Yeah! Exactly! Without kind of just throwing the words.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: About support and how you’re there for them anytime you need them because I’m still waiting for people to say, “Yes! Somebody took me up on that invitation. “

Meredith: I know, right? Oh my gosh!  I think, you know, what’s funny is the example that you just gave is a really good mix of logic and emotion, right? So we’re kinda touch this on both. Like it’s just describing the concrete. Describing what you observed, what you saw, what might be the case but then also adding emotion like, “I felt like kind of rejected or it seems like you might be really stressed.” So what you’re doing there is sort of jumping back to Episode 023, Logic Vs. Emotion, and saying, “Let me give a little of this and a little of that.” especially when you are initiating the conversation. And then you can see if your partner does open up and starts to speak more about what’s going on for them. Assess. Are they going in a logical route or are they going the emotional route? And then follow the steps that we described in Episode 023 to sort of match that, follow them on that path and then eventually merge with, you know, whichever side was left out. I think that’s beneficial.

Marina: Yeah! And also the big one in terms of getting your partner to let you in is don’t corner them.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: They are already overwhelmed. They are already stressed out.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: Cornering them being like, “How do you feel? What can I do to help? Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about feelings.”

Meredith: Not a good idea!

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: Yeah! That would be very overwhelming. And you know, you gotta kinda find the right time, right? And sometimes you could feel like, “God, there’s never a right time.”

Marina: You know what? I think, it’s about being very strategic and jumping on the little opportunities as opposed to forcing an opportunity. Like, “Tell me about your feelings.”

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: I think a deep sigh is a really good opportunity to be like, “Oh wow! You must be kind of overwhelmed! What’s been going on for you?”

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: Literally, it’s something that small. I feel like we all love to sigh and huff and puff and do all kinds of things when to show that we’re stressed out because I think biologically, we need to. So, it’s like being attuned to that and really like going with something like that and being like, “Babe, that seems like a stress side to me.”

Meredith: Yeah! Definitely!

Marina: “Has there been anything going on that’s really been stressing you out this week?” Is the really, really gentle way to start that conversation that doesn’t feel confrontational that’s like, “Tell me your feelings. What’s been going on?”

Meredith: Very intense! Yes, so it’s letting it evolve naturally. Like noticing it in a moment and then bringing up the topic. And sometimes, we can soften it to have that discussion when you’re doing something else. Right? So like with teenagers, I know I used to work with a lot of teenagers in the home and in the community. So, when you’re driving and you have them in the back seat...

Marina: Best time to talk.

Meredith: Oh yeah! You can get a whole lot more out of them than you would get sitting across each other in an office. So, you could do so with your partner too! You’re taking a walk, you’re doing a puzzle together, cooking dinner, cleaning, like it’s not so intense. It’s that face to face connection. “Oh by the way! You know I noticed that you have been seeming really stressed or really overwhelmed. Anything going on with you?” I also think sometimes being physical when you are talking about emotional stuff sort of helps. I don’t know if there’s science behind this but I feel like there is, I always think of EMDR and stuff like that.

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: There’s gotta be something with doing physical activity while you’re talking and thinking about stressful things. It just goes differently. Have you noticed that?

Marina: 100%. I think there is really a very different outcome from being face to face and going for a walk together. I know when I wanna get George to talk, I’m like “Let’s go for a nice long walk with Beefy.” And it’s much easier for him to engage in those conversations when we’re walking and we’re active or like if we’re cooking, if we’re food prepping and we’re chopping up a ton of vegetables or something like that where we’re both active like it really makes the conversation go.. It just gives it a better flow I find.

Meredith: That’s a great suggestion!

Marina: Yeah. With that, one thing that I find, I hear from couples over and over again is “Well, I just wanted to be her cheerleader. She was down and I wanted to cheerlead. I  wanted to make her happy. I wanted to make him happy. He was stressed and I wanted to tell him how awesome he is and how he’s gonna kick ass at work and how that stressor doesn’t even matter.” But I think a lot of times, people don’t realize there’s a time to be an empath and a time to be a cheerleader. So, what are your thoughts on the matter?

Meredith: I agree very much! And we always sort of come back here, until your partner feels heard and understood, you can’t move past that step. So if your partner’s talking about what they’re going through, their experience, their feelings, you have to summarize and validate until they feel heard and understood before you take any steps forward. So that has to come first. And once you are 100% sure that you understand, not only that you understand but that your partner feels understood because those are two different things, then you can start to move out of that role if it feels appropriate. So you could share a bit about how you have felt. You could share a bit about what you’ve observed, stuff like that.

Marina: Yeah! And if and only if your partner solicits your advice and wants to come up with some sort of action plan for themselves for the situation, that’s when the role of cheerleader can come into play. That’s when you say, “Okay. So this is how you feel. This is how the situation has impacted you. This totally makes sense because… I totally get it. This is how you see the situation can be different. These are the steps you wanna take. You know, what? I totally think you can do it. I think you have this skill and this skill and this skill, and I think you’ve done something like this before and you’ve had great success and I’m 100% behind you. I definitely think you can do that.” But again, that’s like the very last piece. And I think people like jumping to that piece because it feels good to be a cheerleader! You can’t deny it, it feels great to talk about how awesome your partner is and their strengths but that can be so, so, so dismissive and can land so the wrong way when it’s not given at the right time.

Meredith: Yeah! Absolutely! So you gotta make sure you follow the order. If you haven’t already, go back to episode 001, Communication Tip Sheet. Download it. That is the basics of communication. They apply to everything we talk about. So you have to follow that first and then you can move on from there. Let’s talk about creating a culture of emotional reciprocity.

Marina: Mhmm!

Meredith: What do you think? How do we do this?

Marina: So, it’d be really lovely in an ideal world if it was like, “I experience an external stressor. You listen to me and validate it and I let you in and express it and then we come up with a plan, then you cheerlead me and everything works and then we have some lag time and then you deal with stressor and I do that for you and you know, it’s all very clear cut like me.” then that’s not real life. The reality is, a lot of times when your partner is going through their stress at work, you’re going through your stress at work.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: So that culture of emotional reciprocity of being able to be there for each other and not get kinda caught in these rigid roles of “You’re the stressed one and I’m the supporter” is really important. And I think a big part of how you do that is keeping those lines of communication open.

Meredith: Yeah! Again, having context, knowing what’s going on in each other’s worlds. I have to go back to episode 024, about Self Care?

Marina: Mhmm!

Meredith: We’ll link it below in case I’m wrong but keeping your cup filled, managing your own stress using self care. Those are all things that are gonna set you up to be more able to deal with your own stress and be supportive of your partner. So everything sort of leads into the same place. And, you know, communication. When your partner feels stressed, you need to really make sure you’re empathizing, validating, and then sharing your own piece, sharing how you’re feeling, how you’re affected, things like that, because showing your vulnerability, right? Just because they are the “stressed one” in this situation doesn’t mean you’re not having your own feelings about it so being vulnerable. Show your partner that you’re there with them. You don’t have to be the strong one. You don’t have to not be affected by it. It’s much more human to have an affect.

Marina: Yeah! And I think there’s a lot to seeing that your partner is impacted by you and I think about this as like a behavioral reinforcement. “So, I was stressed and you were there for me. To me, that reinforces that next time I’m stressed, you’re gonna repeat that behavior so I’m gonna be much more likely to let you in next time. And when I learn about how that impacts you and you let me in, I wanna do that also because that feels good in a relationship.

Meredith: Yeah!

Marina: That’s kind of the meat and potatoes of what feels good in a relationship emotionally is to know when things are externally overwhelming. I come to my relationship and that’s where I feel validated and attuned with and good and I know my partner’s gonna give that to me and I know I’m gonna give that to my partner. So the more you do it, the more it reinforces itself and the more it creates that culture of emotional reciprocity because I think where couples are stuck before they build this in is, “Am I gonna be seen as a burden? Am I gonna be seen as nuisance? Can I show this vulnerable side of myself? Am I gonna get what I need?” If they’re able to even one time really genuinely experience, yes you are gonna get what we need or much more likely to come back next time.

Meredith: Yeah! You’re right! It’s important to keep that in mind because you forget in the moment... This is like my take away. I’m not bouncing around but it’s too good. So I’m pre-saying my take away from today’s episode that what you do in difficult situations, if you give your partner the support that they need, you’re setting the tone and you’re inviting them to let you in, again, you’re inviting them to be open. Each step you take is creating the relationship that you want. It’s more powerful than just getting through this one situation, this one situation. It actually is setting the tone for how the next stand out. That’s a lot of power.

Marina: Yeah! And I think that comes back to our favorite question which is, how do you want your relationship to feel, what your relationship to feel like is a place where you can come with your stress and know that you’re gonna get what you need out of it. Doesn’t mean your partner is gonna solve your problem but it does mean your partner is gonna give you the validation and support that they need and you’re gonna do the same. And again, you’re working towards creating the relationship that you want to feel exactly how you want it to feel.

Meredith: Yeah! This is a good one. So as always, we don’t want you to just listen. We want you to listen and integrate it into your relationship. So we’ve put together our three steps to supporting a stressed out spouse for you. It’s a good download. Definitely get it. You can get at I like that one. It’s a quick one, three steps, reinforce it in your own mind so that you can take it with you. I gave my takeaway because that one was too good. It was like rattling in my head. So tell us your takeaway.

Marina: My takeaway, I guess would be, when your partner’s stressed out, they’re not being intentional, they’re not being a jerk, they’re suffering.

Meredith: Right. And all these feelings that get triggered in you, it’s really important to self care, process kind of manage them so that you’re not looking at your partner negatively. So you’re looking at your partner someone who is hurting and you’re able to be there genuinely and support them.

Meredith: Yeah! That’s a great take away!

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: There’s a lot in this episode. Definitely a lot to think about.

Marina: Yeah!

Meredith: Well, that’s all for today. We hope you take these tips as always and start using them right away. We’d love to continue the conversation with you in our Facebook group. This is a great opportunity to ask questions and share your experiences. And you know, we jump in, we respond, we give extra tips, tricks, live streams just for our members. So be sure to join us at or you can click the link from our website at

Marina: We would love to hear about how you interact with your SOS, your stressed out spouse.

Meredith: Yeah!  

Marina: And, you know, how building that culture of emotional reciprocity is affecting your relationship.

Meredith: Yeah! So be sure to get in there. Let us know when you join. We’ll pop in and say hello. Alright guys! Until next week. We’ll see yah!

Marina and Meredith: Bye!