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DYNAMICS THAT AGGRAVATE RELATIONSHIP STRESS

Projection

A man who flies into a rage if his partner procrastinates on a commitment may be fighting his own embarrassing tendency to procrastinate at the office. A woman who panics or sulks at the least sign of her mate flirting may secretly feel that she herself could take a flirtation too far. In such ways, partners may "project" their own unacceptable thoughts, feelings, and impulses onto the other. They may be hypersensitive to just those habits in their mates that they are least tolerant of in themselves.

This style of handling incidents on a daily basis can greatly increase the stress level of the relationship. Take the case of Jim.

Jim had had a bad day at the office, an annoying drive home on the crowded freeway, and an upsetting conversation with his accountant. When he finally reached home his regular parking space was occupied. Jim would feel much better if he could let off some steam, if he could find someone to blame for his day, if he could yell a bit. Jim knows, however, that this "fight" impulse is "unacceptable." In reality, there is no one to blame for his unfortunate day. He would, in fact, feel very guilty if he took out his frustrations on his wife and equally innocent children.

Solution? Perceive his wife as starting a fight! He searches for a look on her face that might suggest dissatisfaction or demand, and, of course, he finds it. Jim gets to have his fight and lets off steam without feeling guilty or consciously responsible. The price, however, is steep.

Displacement

By definition, displacement involves reducing potential guilt by redirecting a feeling from its original source toward a safer person or object. Have you ever kicked your cat after talking to your mother? Slammed the door while your baby was crying? Honked at innocent motorists as you mentally replayed your most recent romantic squabble? That's displacement.

Taken further, displacement can put stress on relationships. "You always hurt the one you love" can be more accurately stated as, "You only dare to hurt the one who loves you." A man who appears mild-mannered to the outside world may be touchy and quick-tempered with his mate. A woman who rages at her partner when he asks her to do something she considers excessive may not be able to raise her voice to her boss when he makes unreasonable demands on her.

Dependency

Although dependency can be healthy and a strong bond between two people, it can also be destructive and undermining. Confusing a mate with a mother or father encourages childlike reactions and muddles the present with past memories. Remember, to avoid falling into a dependent relationship that leaves one partner a child, both people must understand that there are no second chances at childhood. You can't make your mate into the parent you didn't have. Caring is, of course, different from care-taking. The former is a form of loving; the latter is manipulative and can be destructive.

Aggression

The important distinction between aggression and assertion is its intent. During assertion, we move ourselves toward another; during aggression, we move ourselves against another. Assertion is vital within a relationship. Aggression is not.

It's difficult for women to be assertive when they have been raised with the notion that they should spend their days doing office or house work, but act like the weaker sex. Many of us fear displeasing others, fear abandonment, fear appearing too independent. The truth is, reports indicate that both men and women enjoy a partner who is assertive. Such a partner eliminates the need for second-guessing and mind-reading. Such a partner gives his or her mate implicit permission to be similarly assertive. Aggression, however, often evokes more aggression—thrusts, parries, and strategies for defense.

Passivity

Passivity and evasion are not simply nonactivities that have no results. Rather, they are very manipulative and are used to seize power within the relationship without assuming the responsibility for it.

Passivity can be an aggressive act. A familiar example is the man or woman who, with an outward show of cooperation, does not accompany his or her mate to a party ("You go ahead, dear, I'll be perfectly fine here at home"), or who goes but sits passive and uninvolved. Either way, the couple is deprived of having a good time together.

Sexual Withdrawal

Sexual withdrawal can be seemingly passive, yet powerfully manipulative. Although most sexual dysfunctions are related to anxiety or guilt, avoiding sexual intimacy can also be an expression of disapproval or anger. Through sexual withdrawal a partner can be saying "I will not give to you, nor will I put my pleasure in your hands. I no longer feel comfortable letting you know that you can have an effect on me."

There are many problems with this dynamic. First, it sets up a pattern of bringing nonsexual problems into the bedroom. Second, it is indirect and does not effectively address the real cause of the anger. Third, it deprives both members of the couple, not just the partner being punished!

Sexual problems are so common among women under stress that it would be unrealistic to attribute them all to relationship stress. Some of them must be attributed to the Female Stress Syndrome as well.

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