10 Ways to Help a Stressed-Out Spouse

by | Jul 16, 2019 | Life | 14 comments

How to help a stressed-out husband or wife so you can come through it stronger!

Ever feel like your spouse is stressed all the time–and because of that they’re always short with you?

On Mondays I like to post a reader question and then take a stab at answering it, and today I’ve got one from a woman who says that when they go on vacation the sex and the relationship is amazing. But then as soon as they get home, the relationship falls apart because her husband is so stressed.

Reader Question

I’ve just celebrated our twentieth anniversary with an amazing overseas trip. We spoiled each other rotten.

But how do we spend such a fabulous time together where the sex is spectacular both physically and emotionally, and then arrive back home and his frustration levels grow to such an extent that it’s impossible to have a conversation?

I’ve treated him with the utmost respect. I haven’t screamed or made unreasonable demands. I did ask him to please refrain from continuously referring to problems he’s facing as they rarely resolve and because of that, I feel useless to help him gain victory which is just debilitating.

To be honest we’ve had 2 major blow outs this year, both after magical weeks of intimacy and then boom! I feel like I’ve prostituted myself. The hardest thing for me is keeping my heart open to our intimate connection.

I’d really value any words of wisdom. If financial pressure is too much (I’m a stay at home Mom), then I would happily forgo the travel lavishing if we could just maintain a steadier relational equilibrium.

Okay, let’s take a stab at this! Once again, I’m only going on the information I have here. I don’t know what their conflicts or about, or what the conflicts look like. I don’t know if he has anger issues or not. But, just going on the information here, a few things occur to me, so here goes!

Most people have reasons behind their actions

This is a simple fact of human behaviour: we do things for a reason.

Therefore, if he’s happy when he’s on vacation, but gets upset at her when he’s at home, there is probably a reason beyond just “he’s a bad person” or “he’s crazy.”

Sheila’s tip: If you start thinking that your husband is being entirely unreasonable and irrational, it’s quite likely there’s something big about this situation that you’re missing.

When people act a certain way, they are often reacting to someone else. Thus, it’s always good to find the trigger and disarm it.

To go along with our first point, if people aren’t islands, that means that they are usually reacting to something that someone else is doing. So if you’re having an issue with someone, the first step should always be to ask: “could I be doing something that is rubbing him the wrong way?” It’s not a comfortable question, but it’s a good one to ask since none of us are perfect, and we all have room to grow.

Now, it could very well be that in examining yourself you find the answer is “no”. And that may be because of one of two main reasons. First of all, and this is really important to understand, when husbands are emotionally abusive they frequently blame everyone else for their outbursts and never take ownership of their own actions. And that can make the wife and the kids think that they are responsible for causing the problem, even if that’s not true. If you fear you may be an emotionally abusive marriage, then please read this.

However, not all stressed out spouses are abusive. There is also the incredibly common issue of displacement

Displacement happens when your spouse may be mad or stressed because of something or someone else and takes it out on you instead. An example might be if he had a rough meeting with his boss and then comes home and screams at the kids. He can’t scream at his boss without getting fired, so he takes it out on someone he can get away with yelling at. That’s displacement. The stress is displaced from its proper target onto someone who is safer to take it out on.

And there is absolutely nothing you can–or should!–do about this other than simply calling it out when you see it, helping your spouse talk through it, and then drawing boundaries around the unhealthy behaviour.

If your husband or wife is taking their frustrations with their boss, money, insecurities, or friends out on you, that is an emotionally immature response and does not need to be tolerated by you, your children, or anyone else and is not your fault.

Here’s a quick example from my daughter Rebecca and how she is working through this in her marriage:

In our marriage, I’m the stressed out one and my husband is actually quite emotionally stable and laid-back. Displacement has been a huge issue I’ve had to face in our marriage. 

When we first got married, I was doing my honors thesis in my final year of university. It was incredibly, incredibly stressful. I often found that after particularly long or hard days at the lab I’d come home and everything Connor did ticked me off–even things I normally would find cute or endearing. 

I’d snap at him, he’d get hurt, and it raised the tension level in our marriage significantly. And both of us felt like the victims in this–I was so stretched thin and at the end of my rope that I honestly didn’t think that I could handle any of Connor’s silliness but was so overwhelmed and felt out of control, and he felt like I was telling him that he wasn’t good enough and was yet another source of stress in my life. 

Luckily we’re both psychology grads so we labelled what was happening as displacement quite quickly. But it wasn’t until we had that conversation and honestly talked about how it was unfair that I was taking my stress and anger out on Connor that we were able to start building up the healthy coping mechanisms that I was lacking. We were able to problem-solve because I didn’t want to snap at him and he was tired of being my emotional punching bag. But in order to grow more emotionally mature, I had to be faced with the fact that what I was doing was wrong, and that Connor was not going to take it anymore. 

 Sheila’s tip: Look honestly at yourself and the overall context of your spouse’s life to figure out what the trigger points for his/her stress are. Then work through what needs to change–modify your own behaviour, create some better systems to reduce trigger points, or start building up healthy coping mechanisms so that when stress comes it is properly dealt with. 

You need to allow your spouse to be honest about their stress–but you don’t need to be their emotional crutch.

Here’s what I think is going on from a cursory reading of this letter: they have a great time when they’re on vacation because the work world and everyday pressures are gone. But when those pressures are back, he’s stressed.

When you’re dealing with chronic stress, it can start to feel so big and overwhelming that you just need to get it out and talk about it. And your spouse can be a huge help with this! 

I’m concerned that this woman may not be allowing her husband to have that space to just vent.

She said,

I’ve treated him with the utmost respect. I haven’t screamed or made unreasonable demands. I did ask him to please refrain from continuously referring to problems he’s facing as they rarely resolve and because of that, I feel useless to help him gain victory which is just debilitating.

It seems as if her main concern here is that SHE feels debilitated by the fact that he has problems that don’t seem to have solutions. But if she feels debilitated by that, imagine how HE feels! They’re his problems, after all. They’re things that he has to face at work every single day. That kind of stress is horrible to go through day after day.

If you have a stressed-out spouse, you have the opportunity to be their oasis. You can be that person who helps them recover from a hard day at work and they feel rejeuvinated and ready to face the next day. Being willing to enter the horrible stress, anxiety, and depression that your burnt-out spouse is dealing with is one of the most meaningful, selfless things you can do.

Now here’s a caveat: being your spouse’s listening ear is important, but if there is never any action to make it better or cope better, talking can become more about the stressed out spouse unloading their emotional burdens onto the other. That’s not fair–you can ask your spouse to join you in the middle of the mess, but you can’t just dump it on your spouse without any willingness to try to fix the problem or find ways to handle it better. But it’s also not fair to expect your spouse to just be able to switch the stress off and fix it immediately–often spouses who are experiencing long-term stress are burnt out and just simply don’t have as many emotional resources to help them find solutions.

You need to have patience, but you don’t need to enable. If work is really that bad, brainstorm about how he/she may be able to find a new job, or how you could downsize so he/she could afford to take a lower paying, but much less stressful, job. If there are mental health issues or severe burnout involved, it is not unfair or unloving to insist that your spouse sees a licensed counsellor to help learn some healthy coping mechanisms.

Jumping in to fix the problem, however, when you’re not willing to enter into the horribleness with your spouse, can feel very dismissive. It says, “I am frustrated that your pain is inconveniencing me and I’m not willing to put up with it.” So before you start offering the solutions, make sure that you truly listen to your spouse’s heart. Hear the pain, the stress, the hopelessness they are feeling. Dive into it with them, mourn with them, and then work to build up a better life together.

If your spouse really isn’t willing to do anything other than complain, it is very appropriate to draw boundaries around that. People struggling with mental health issues often get into very negative spirals where they can talk about all the negative things in life but don’t have any energy or motivation to fix them.

You could say something like, “I know this hurts, I know this is hard, and I hate seeing how much this is affecting you. But we can’t live like this forever, so we need to try to find some solutions. If you just don’t feel like you can right now, then we need to talk to a licensed counsellor, and that is OK, too. But we need to have some hope that this will get better. So unless you are willing to see a counsellor or put some action steps into place, I’m sorry but I can’t just be an emotional dumping ground without any hope of it getting better when there are steps we could take to limit your stress. I will support you forever, but I’m not willing to just let you be so unhappy all the time and not even try to make it better.”

Sheila’s tip: don’t withdraw or get upset if your spouse seems stressed, but enter into your spouse’s experience and work together towards healing, drawing boundaries when necessary.

Become a safe place for your spouse to work through his/her stress

Look, a lot of us are married to spouses who have stress. Sometimes it’s stress over potential job loss. Sometimes it’s stress because of toxic relationships at work. Sometimes it’s just simply the stress of the job. My husband has a LOT of stress at his work. He’s a pediatrician and often has to make life and death decisions. He sometimes can’t sleep and often has nightmares that he’ll do exactly the wrong thing. It’s scary. And I can never really understand it completely because I’m not a doctor (though I have this recurring nightmare where he gets paged in the middle of the night to come to a delivery for a premature baby and he sends me instead because he doesn’t want to go, and then I remember that I forgot to go to medical school and grab his textbooks before I jump in the car).

Here’s the question: What are you going to do to help your spouse through stress?

A few quick tips:

How to help a stressed-out husband or wife so you can come through it stronger!

10 Tips for Helping Your Spouse Through Stress

Now here are 10 practical ways you can help your spouse go through stress:

1. DON’T express displeasure when your spouse is upset. Say something like, “you look like something’s bothering you. Do you want to go for a walk and talk about it?” rather than “why are you always so down?” or “can’t you just enjoy the family?”

2. DO allow them to process things with you. When they start talking, say something like, “tell me more about that” or “how did that make you feel”?

3. DON’T try to fix the problem. Just because there isn’t an immediate solution or an obvious course of action doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk about it. Sometimes the point is the talking, not the fixing.

4. DON’T enable hopelessness speak. Ranting and venting is one thing, but what we think and say becomes what we believe and how we act. So if your spouse starts saying things like, “I’ll never be able to get through this,” or “I just don’t think I’ll ever feel better,” nip those in the bud and talk about it or have your spouse see a counsellor.

5. DO express confidence that your spouse can handle this. Say things like, “I know you’ll make the right decision”, or “I’m so impressed that you managed to keep your cool” or “I think you’re handling this really well.”

6. DO use empathetic language. I don’t mean you should baby your spouse, but do use soothing words like, “I’m so sorry you’re going through this,” or “Just remember that I love you so much.” Those words can be like a balm on an open wound.

7. DO ask if you can pray or help. Start the day by saying, “what’s one specific thing I can pray for you today?” And ask your spouse, “If there’s ever anything I can do to make it easier, even if it’s just researching other jobs or anything for you, let me know. I want to help, but I don’t want to do something that would make the situation even more awkward.”

8. DO keep having sex. Seriously! It’s a great stress reliever. Sometimes guys who are stressed find their libidos shut down. But if your husband is still willing, or still interested if you do the seducing, then do the seducing! Instead of getting upset because he may not initiate as much, you start initiating. It can be one of the best ways to help him feel close, strong, and powerful.

9. DO help your family home be a place of rest. If your spouse is dealing with chronic stress at work, make an effort to have non-work time be a time of rest. Say no to planning too many busy weekends, keep the house as clean as you can (one of my son-in-laws tricks when Rebecca gets stressed is just to clean the bathroom–it makes a huge difference!), and get in a habit of getting out and doing things together, whether it’s just walks in the park or playing soccer with the kids.

10. DO call out good days when they happen. Very few people experience 100 bad days in a row. But when you’re chronically stressed, it’s hard to see the good days because the bad just seem so big and scary. So when a good day happens, call it out. Mention, “Hey, you seemed really happy today. It was so great to see that,” or ask, “What was so different about today that made it good? Let’s try to do that more often.” Learning to notice good days when they happen is an important step to getting over chronic stress or burnout.

Now let me know in the comments: Has your spouse ever gone through a period of stress or burnout? How did you handle that period of your marriage?

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Elsie

    Thanks for your post! My husband has a lot of responsibility at work which burdens him. He never takes it out on me but he will get extremely angry by small frustrations; for example, if he accidentally drops something on the floor, he’ll curse or get really angry and upset. Even though it’s not directed at me, I find it stressful (I grew up in a home where my Dad was always angry after work so any kind of anger or yelling is triggering for me). I’m not sure what I should do, he knows that I find it upsetting but I also don’t think I can reasonably ask him never to get angry. I’m happy to be available to support my husband but he’s not good at expressing his feelings and usually isn’t fully aware of how he is feeling. (My husband is a wonderful man in so many ways, I think he just learned unhealthy ways of dealing with anger from his family)

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      I think you’re totally right that we can’t ask someone to never be angry–but we do need to help each other learn healthy coping mechanisms and the ability to diagnose our emotions is a really important skill. If he learned unhealthy ways of dealing with anger, then maybe there needs to be a conversation about seeing a counsellor or even just working through talking it out together to get to the bottom of it. With stress, often the 5 Whys approach can work quite well to help you understand the actual emotion behind the reactions.

      There are a LOT of people out there who don’t know how to properly label how they feel (I was one of them in the beginning of our marriage!). And he CAN learn how to do that–but it does take time and work and it’s not that fun. But it’s wonderful you’re trying to be a safe place for him as he’s going through this stress, and having someone who is there to support you can make that learning process a lot easier!

  2. Bethany

    We would talk it through and try to find other options for jobs. He ended up getting fired for not being ruthless enough(prison guard). While we’re struggling financially again, the situation is still better than then.

  3. Rhonda

    This rings true for me right now! My husband has been going through the process of becoming a pilot(1-1/2 years) and the last 4-5 months have been focused on becoming a flight instructor, all while still working part-time and trying to keep up with our family life with 3 girls ages 7-13(he’s 42, so this is a later-life career change). This has increased his stress so much(including financially with working less hours and the cost of training)and it’s been difficult for us all. Added to that has been us helping a friend go through a difficult separation due to emotional abuse, and her spouse turned that on us in response to her leaving and got their pastor involved who in turn involved our pastor. My husband struggles with letting that go(they were both friends of ours) and because he’s a thinker, he’s always trying to fix things(her spouse is a narcissist and can turn everything to look how he wants it to look, etc). One thing I’ve worked very hard on in the last couple months to reduce his stress is to limit what I tell him about our friend’s situation. She used to visit us for the weekend several times a month (they were taking turns at the house with the kids and she had no place to go) and it’s been months since I’ve invited her over, because when he thinks too much about it- and her coming over brings it front and centre-he doesn’t sleep, he becomes obsessed with it all, and life becomes much harder for him. I sometimes find it hard to not share things about her situation with him that she tells me, but I’d rather protect him from that at this point.
    Also my husband started going to counseling last week. He was finding his training was suffering from the stress and decided for himself that something needed to change. His counselor is giving him stress management tips, but they’re also going to be digging into the emotional stuff that keeps coming up. It will be well worth the money.

  4. Jane Eyre

    I am the stressed out one in our marriage, and it’s doubly hard because the sources of the stress are sacrifices I made for our marriage (moving halfway across the country for his job and leaving the pretty amazing life I built for myself, cutting off toxic family, cutting off a few friends who didn’t respect our marriage, now pregnancy). The reality is that, barring catastrophe, he will NEVER be in the position to “even out” those sacrifices.

    It’s not helped by *his* friends trying to blow rainbows up my butt, attempting to run my life for me, or being rude to me about pregnancy. Being a very good natured person, he does not get in fights about this (I, on the other hand, have no compunction about telling people that bring decent to my husband is not optional).

    It’s most bearable when my husband accepts my pain and daily struggles as a necessary byproduct of getting us in the same state, growing our family, doing my half to ensure that people in our lives are healthy and supportive of us, etc.

    I guess that when you’re applying this to, say, a wife whose husband is losing his mind from his job, consider whether those stresses are from something that benefits your marriage. If the husband’s job enables the wife to stay at home or work in a fun, low key job she enjoys, she needs to re-frame that mental load. “He is unhappy in his job so I can work part time at a great company.” “He misses playing golf with his friends because he is so insistent on being there for our kids when they are young.”

    If the stress is coming from an area that is not beneficial to the family, then that’s another issue. If he’s emotionally abusive, distance yourself.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      I agree–recognizing the blessings that come from the sacrifice can help make the stress a lot more manageable. Saying something like, “He’s stressed because the kids are so little right now and we don’t get any time to ourselves, but that will pass and we’ll just do our best to treasure these moments before our children are all grown up” can help re-frame the situation quite a bit and take the pressure off.

      I do think, though, that in long-term situations even if what is causing the stress is providing benefit to the family it can be helpful to know when the end-date is or take steps to make it better. E.g., my husband was in a job for just a short time that he quickly found to be quite stressful and it was incredibly helpful to him to both recognize how much the job was providing but also to have the freedom to research other positions until he found one.

      I hope you’re able to build a wonderful life for yourself in your new area, too! Leaving a great community is so hard and can be really difficult to deal with–there’s a lot of grief involved.

  5. Paul

    I’m going to be “that guy” commenting. But this blog has been such a blessing to my wife and I. From the guys side, I wonder how the sex life is outside”vacation sex”. I know personally it can be extremely frustrating to have a wife extremely interested in sex when on vacation and then seemingly not at all when back home. His work stress may be a big factor, but her stress at home and the disparity he feels in sex might also be a contributing factor. Just my one cent. Thanks for your ministry!

  6. Cynthia

    Great response! My husband is also a doctor, and we’ve been together since high school so the entire getting into med school/med school/residency/early years of practice phase was basically a blur of insane stress.

    One thing that helped was finding an old copy of How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk at my parents’ house. I tried the technique of empathetic listening on my husband, and was shocked to find that it actually worked! My ILs are really sweet, but they would try to convince him that everything was okay, that his stress wasn’t so bad and that he should be grateful for what he had – which would just result in him getting more worked up as he tried to convince them how bad things were. It was really weird to just let him talk at first without trying to fix things, but it really helped him feel that he was being heard.

    Emotionally, we also did this:
    1. Recognized that his moods were generally caused by outside stress.
    2. I agreed not to take it personally if he wasn’t happy all the time and if he needed space.
    3. He agreed to make sure that he wasn’t acting out at home due to the stress, and that he would go to sleep, go to the gym, etc.

    Of course, now that we’ve gotten to a better place, my oldest daughter is applying to med school and we are going through all that stress again…..

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s awesome, Cynthia! And medical school and residency are such stressful times. I love that you learned empathetic listening! I should write a post on that. I’m sure you’ll need it again with your daughter!

  7. Mel

    Terrific post, Sheila! I appreciate you acknowledging on #8 that some men’s libidos will go down, not up, under stress – that’s how my husband is built. It was a surprise to me. As a newlywed, I had been advised to try to be extra available sexually during his stressful times, as a way to bless him with extra sex, but quickly realized it only added to his stress.

    The way he helped me understand HIS body was by explaining that sex is very physically demanding for him – as in: energy, body needs to manufacture semen, etc. So if he’s stressed mentally, extra physical exertion isn’t a blessing. But what I CAN do is make sure our regular sex (2-3x a week) is GOOD sex. It’s about quality not quantity.

    Incidentally, over our 7 years of marriage, this has encouraged me to “grow up” in how I deal with MY stress. I can be tempted to think a really good orgasm would solve all my problems, but that just reflects my heart that’s not really actively trusting Christ and would prefer to hide from my stressful things, using sex as a coping mechanism. And then the great thing is how, when I am actively seeking to trust Christ, I can enjoy the vibrant sexual relationship He had blessed me with in my marriage.

    Getting to know our own spouse is a journey, and I appreciate you, Sheila, always going beyond the over-used adage that “sex will fix everything.”

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Thanks, Mel! We really do make an idol out of stress, don’t we?

  8. "Lisa"

    Sooooo, what happens when both spouses are the “stressed out” one? Hubby works more than full time in a stressful industry, daily facing randomly stressful situations and people. His paycheck just can’t cover it all (California cost of living is nuts!), which compounds his stress exponentially. He feels like a failure just looking at our bank account. Add two amazing kids who crave his attention, his own previous bouts with anxiety, extracurriculars, friends, extended family expectations, and helping at home to his plate. He understandably can’t do much beyond look at his phone or play video games when he’s home.
    Then there’s me. I am home-schooling said two amazing kiddos (because, again, California), attempting to maintain a semblance of a home (honestly failing here), be involved in all the kid things, maintain a life-giving ministry role and relationships, and did I mention work part-time from home? I pull all-nighters once a week to make the needed paycheck.
    We are both SO overloaded with *maintaining* there’s no time or money for us to work on anything extra, like being healthy, having date night, or a “regular” sex life, much less a growing or exciting one. Forget foreplay, emotional connection, or spiritual intimacy. We’re so depleted in so many ways, we can’t seem to muster much simple compassion for each other sometimes. We are both wholeheartedly committed but neither of us can be “the stronger one.” It’s nearly impossible to communicate even small issues because they’ll automatically lead to an emotional scene where the solution is one of us just “swallowing” our own discontent in order to avoid more stress. Hubby would be reluctant to try counseling. He’s done it before, it was a short-term band-aid, not a long-term change in outlook. It would be another thing on the calendar or somewhere else he’s failing in life. Truthfully, another thing for either of us to “work on” just won’t happen. The theory is always great though. Admittedly, we shy away from the hard things in our marriage. So, how do we navigate the stress when even the stress is another cause of stress??

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Lisa, that does sound so difficult!

      It sounds, though, like one of the roots of the problems is that you’re living in a really expensive state. Have you considered moving? Even if it meant a lower paying job? Because you may be able to live in a much cheaper state with much less money, with more of a community feel, which would help you start to get ahead. Sometimes you really CAN’T get ahead and there is too much stress. And in those times, you need to ask yourselves, “can we keep doing this?” And if you can’t, then you need to change something.

      Sometimes it’s not a marriage problem. It’s a stress problem. And you have to deal with the stress. So I’d say start there and consider uprooting yourselves to a place that’s more community oriented, cheaper, and easier to live in, and see if that helps.

  9. Wife

    I have so been there! Some states are so expensive. Hubby is stressed out… kids…2nd jobs etc etc.
    What I wish I would have realized is this: Guys go to video games or porn or out with the guys because sometimes they are stressed at work or wherever because they aren’t getting the RESPECT (or admiration) they crave from peers for the work they are trying to do their best at- to make you happy. There is a lot of admiration they get from “winning” a level on the video games or some random porn star saying what they are craving to hear!
    So instead, try sex where you affirm their manhood the whole time and tell him often at home or at the store how awesome he makes you feel and what an amazing guy he is for providing for you as best as he can (even though you have to help right now) It will be a salve to his manhood that God created him with! He wants to make you happy, but can’t help the circumstances sometimes. If he feels like a failure because he can’t cut it like the Jones’ he will feel hopeless, and get distant. But if his wife reassures him that he already is amazing* and is everything she could hope for, he feels encouraged to push through At the stressful job for his wife. Try complimenting the things he already does awesome right now… also compliment his muscles from working out or his cute butt. Etc. Guys married us because we made them feel amazing and manly like he could take on the world …


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