When things are really tough, it is nice to have someone to lean on. Research shows that coping with a partner (e.g., a close other, usually a romantic partner) has incredible benefits. That said, we could all improve how we help our partners cope with life’s stresses. Below, I share how “dyadic coping” or coping with a partner works, the benefits of coping as a couple, and provide some tips on how to better engage in dyadic coping.
What is dyadic coping?
To illustrate how dyadic coping works, let’s look at a hypothetical couple: Pat and Sam.
When Pat is facing a big challenge at work that is stressing them out, Pat communicates this stress (either intentionally or unintentionally, verbally or nonverbally) to Sam. Once the stress has been communicated, one of three things can happen: Sam could do nothing, Sam could also get stressed out by being with a relational partner who is stressed, in other words, Sam might “catch” the stress themselves, or Sam could help Pat by engaging in dyadic coping.
The best case scenario for both individuals and the health of the relationship is the dyadic coping option. According to Dr. Guy Bodenmann, dyadic coping happens when partners help each other cope with stress by actively listening, brainstorming problem solving ideas together, making a plan together to resolve the issue, allowing one another to express their emotions, and helping each other think differently about the situation (e.g., cognitive reappraisal).
Communication is key to engaging in dyadic coping. Without communication, partners might not know what is causing stress for the other person. Partners may struggle to work through possible solutions together without openly discussing the issue.
What are the benefits of coping as a couple?
Couples who engage in dyadic coping have stronger, healthier relationships where they feel more satisfied. The act of dyadic coping builds intimacy in the relationship as well as lowers feelings of stress and other negative emotions. The most recent research on dyadic coping has found that these positive outcomes of dyadic coping are true for couples from many different cultures and countries.
How can we best help our partners cope with stress?
- Turn toward each other when one of you are feeling stressed. When I am stressed, I sometimes take it out on my partner. And it’s hardly ever his fault! Partners often bear the burden of work stress brought home. If you notice your partner acting out, try to get to the bottom of their stress. Is it something going on at home or at work? Rather than pull away, try to provide support and actively listen to what they are verbally saying, but also what they are showing you through their behaviors.
- Brainstorm solutions together. In a nonjudgmental way, discuss all kinds of options, without the expectation that your partner will choose any of the ideas. In the end, let your partner choose, and make it clear that they have the choice to deal with their problem as they see fit, but you are there to help however you can.
- Ask questions, listen, and encourage your partner to see the situation differently. Carefully offer alternative interpretations of the situation if appropriate. Communicating with one another can often help people make sense of situations in new ways and can help people reframe the story they tell about what happened.
- One last tip to keep in mind – dyadic coping isn’t always easy, and is especially hard when both members of a couple are experiencing stress at the same time. Dyadic coping seems to work best when partners take turn helping one another and experiencing stress themselves. Of course, stressors often can’t be controlled or timed! A little “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” can go along way for successful dyadic coping.
What do you do when your partner is feeling stressed? Jump in and help or give them space? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments below.