Marital problems become magnified when the partners take their personal stresses out on each other. The resulting problems can get so complicated that they become very difficult to unravel.

Your spouse is a handy scapegoat for stress-related problems that really have nothing to do with him or her. Still, your partner is often the most available (and least risky) target. It's only a matter of time until your spouse will retaliate by directing his or her stress-related anger and frustration right back at you.

You can avoid this vicious cycle by taking the following steps:

  • Take time to decompress. After a stressful day at work, many people need time alone to decompress before they're ready to talk. One spouse has had a horrible day at the office and a rough commute. The other's been stuck at home all day with two sick kids. A 15-minute period of calming down, reading the paper or looking at TV, may be necessary before any meaningful conversation can begin. Of course, the less-stressed partner must take over so that the more-stressed one can reconstitute.
  • Allow each other time to gripe. Psychologist John Gottman recommends a daily "sanctioned whining session," where "each person gets to complain about any catastrophes that occurred, while the other is understanding and supportive."
  • Find out what's upsetting your partner. Now it's time to talk about the details of your day — your successes and your disappointments. If your feelings are out in the open, you'll be less likely to vent your frustrations on each other. Talk to your partner about what's been troubling you, and encourage your spouse to do the same. You can help each other by listening attentively and figuring out how you can be supportive. The best way to do this is to ask your partner what he or she needs — not to try to read that other person's mind. Your spouse isn't a mind reader. Don't assume that you know what he or she is feeling. It's up to you to make your feelings known and to recruit him or her as an ally to combat the real cause of your stress. This is a process that takes time and careful listening. When married partners become obsessed with their own stressors and don't communicate with each other, the very foundation of the relationship begins to crumble.
  • Recognize the different ways that you and your partner deal with stress. Some people keep their stresses hidden — often even from themselves. Other people complain loudly when they're under pressure. It's important to understand the differences in how you and your partner handle stress, and not get competitive about whose way is better.
  • Don't take it personally. Try not to take it as a personal attack when your spouse is grumpy or preoccupied when under stress — as long as these mood shifts aren't too frequent or severe. On the other hand, if he or she seems irritable all the time, you may need to come up with some specific help. It's not supportive just to listen quietly if your partner is always stressed out. Then you're dealing with a chronic condition, not just with a time-limited acute crisis.