Sometimes we can’t see or understand how stressed out our spouse is. Meridian Magazine is an online magazine for Latter-day Saints that has a Friday column where people can write into a therapist, Geoff Steuer, who will answer their questions. One week, a mother of four wrote in, worried about the birth of a new baby, her fifth, coming soon. Her husband was a medical resident in his last year of residency. She said they love and respect each other and they had made a lot of progress in the last few years but then she said:
“When we are so stressed and worn and stretched with so much anxiety and worry, our communication spirals. We have both identified this and have been working on this. I feel like we have made a lot of great progress over the past few years! However, I see us regressing as we are literally at the gate of the arrival of this new baby and my husband’s more demanding schedule. “
Geoff Steurer, the therapist, gave an insightful answer, validating this mother and saying how aware she was and not just being reactive. He gave the suggestion that they have a weekly or monthly planning meeting to be on the same page and to be proactive. He also recommended that they have a family council to make the children aware and ask them to pitch in on the work. He also included this insightful story by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland cautioning this young mother to be aware of each other’s stress levels:
“As a youth in England, Samuel Plimsoll was fascinated with watching ships load and unload their cargoes. He soon observed that, regardless of the cargo space available, each ship had its maximum capacity. If a ship exceeded its limit, it would likely sink at sea. In 1868 Plimsoll entered Parliament and passed a merchant shipping act that, among other things, called for making calculations of how much a ship could carry. As a result, lines were drawn on the hull of each ship in England. As the cargo was loaded, the freighter would sink lower and lower into the water. When the water level on the side of the ship reached the Plimsoll mark, the ship was considered loaded to capacity, regardless of how much space remained. As a result, British deaths at sea were greatly reduced.’
Elder Holland continues,
“Like ships, people have differing capacities at different times and even different days in their lives. In our relationships we need to establish our own Plimsoll marks and help identify them in the lives of those we love. Together we need to monitor the load levels and be helpful in shedding or at least readjusting some cargo if we see our sweetheart is sinking. Then, when the ship of love is stabilized, we can evaluate long-term what has to continue, what can be put off until another time, and what can be put off permanently. Friends, sweethearts, and spouses need to be able to monitor each other’s stress and recognize the different tides and seasons of life. We owe it to each other to declare some limits and then help jettison some things if emotional health and the strength of loving relationships are at risk. Remember, pure love ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,’ and helps loved ones do the same.”
Geoff Stuerer, the therapist, continues:
“I also recommend that when you feel a strong negative emotion that you make a practice of becoming curious about that emotion so you can present it to your partner in a softer way. For example, let’s say you feel upset that your husband is spending too much time on his phone when he’s home. Slow down and see if you can notice what the anger signal is telling you. You might discover that you’re feeling lonely. You might feel unappreciated. The softer we can present our needs to our partner, the more likely they’ll respond in compassion.”
Geoff Stuerer said to be curious about our emotions so we can present them to our partner in a softer way. This practice would stop us from being reactive and just being angry without any resolution. It has taken me years to learn to do this, with the R.A.I.S.E process, to see why I was triggered and what the truth is. I have learned to really take time to do this, to thoroughly think about it and my journaling also has been a tool to help me be introspective. Once I learn what the truth is then it helps me not be so angry.
Do you see how crucial Elder Holland’s story is about the Plimsoll mark or realizing what our spouse’s stress level is? I could have used this story when I was the stressed out new-comer in Belgium, trying to get my husband to see I was overwhelmed.
I like how Elder Holland said as “friends, sweethearts, and spouses [we] need to be able to monitor each other’s stress and recognize the different tides and seasons of life.” As we do this together, we will get better at regulating our “loads” and have fewer overwhelming waves crashing down on us ready to capsize our boats.