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Why Communication Skills Might Not be the Problem

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If your relationship is having some ups and downs, you may be wondering what you can do to turn things around. It might seem like everyone you know has an idea…not to mention all the magazine covers and books promising quick-fix solutions every time you turn around. One common suggestion, mentioned by relationship experts, religious figures, and magazine articles alike, is to work on improving your communication skills.

This is often a great idea, of course. Most of us are not experts at effective communication! We may have learned bad habits in childhood or picked them up along the way as we dated. Working to fix these habits and to get better at problem solving, fighting fair, and getting our needs met is a good plan.

Stress: Why It Takes a Toll on the Two of You

But here’s something important to remember—sometimes the problems the two of you face might not really be about the two of you! They could have more to do with leftover stress coming from outside of the relationship.

One way stress can eat away at our relationship is just by taking away from the time we have together. If you’ve ever come home from a long and stressful day only to realize you have no time for each other because of other pressing issues, this might sound familiar. Children…money worries…work, medical, family, and household issues… there are many outside concerns that rob us of the time we need.

Another common problem is when other stresses drain us so much that we have nothing left in the tank for our spouse or partner. Research shows that when we’re exhausted from coping with other issues, we can lack the self-control to handle a hard conversation or difficult topic. If this happens in your relationship, it doesn’t necessarily mean the two of you have problems. It may just mean you’re worn out!

Lower-Income Couples Face Struggles

These issues can be even more challenging for couples who have lower incomes. These men and women may work irregular schedules and face challenges with issues like transportation and child care. They may not have much extra money to spend on things like babysitters, dinners out, or fun activities—things that help them “find time” to be together.

And if a couple is dealing with money problems, that’s extra tough. We know from research that financial stress and worries are especially hard on couples and relationships. There’s something about this particular stress that really tends to cause fights, decrease the ability to solve problems, and wear away at the bonds of love.

What’s the Answer?

So, what to do if stress, money problems, and lack of time are contributing to problems in your own relationship? Obviously, we can’t wave a magic wand and make these issues disappear. But there are ways we can work to reduce stress and stay aware of how it might be affecting us. This can help us keep relationships strong and prevent outside problems from breaking down our bonds with our partner.

One way of coping that’s been getting a lot of positive attention recently is mindfulness: the practice of learning to be present and aware in the current moment. Mindfulness is simple to learn and use, and it’s free. Another important way to cope with these stresses is healthy living: exercise, eating healthy, and taking time to relax.

Couples can also benefit from taking whatever time they can find to enjoy each other. This doesn’t have to cost money. Try these inexpensive dates or these at-home dates for parents.

Finally, people and programs in your community can help when financial times are tight, money is an issue, or when you and your family need assistance. Here are some tips for healthy financial management, info about building social connections in your community, and info for families who need help from programs like Head Start and Temporary Aid for Needy Families.

If you’d like to learn more about these ways to reduce stress in your relationship, the SMART Couples project is offering ELEVATE, a free, research-backed relationship enhancement class for couples, in 5 Florida counties. ELEVATE teaches about mindfulness and helps couples learn about how outside stress might be affecting their relationships. All our programs are taught by trained professionals and are welcoming to all. Sign up today!

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida


Neff, L. A., & Karney, B. R. (2017). Acknowledging the elephant in the room: How stressful environmental contexts shape relationship dynamics. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 107-110.

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