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Is Crossover Stress Affecting Your Relationship?


When your partner is going through a stressful time at work, it’s common for you to be affected by it, too (and vice versa). Sometimes it can even feel as intense as if you were experiencing it firsthand. That experience is called crossover workplace stress (or trauma)—a term that researchers use to describe how work stress gets passed from one partner to another. There are three ways someone’s workplace stress can impact their partner: through direct crossover, indirect crossover, and common stressors.

Direct Crossover. If you’re feeling your partner’s stress as if it were your own, you’re likely experiencing what scientists call direct crossover. “It’s when a partner is highly empathetic and puts themselves into the same shoes as their significant others,” says organizational psychologist Yi-Ren Wang, PhD, who recently authored a research study on crossover stress. You feel as if you’ve experienced the stressful event yourself, even though you haven’t.

Indirect Crossover. You can experience indirect crossover stress when tension in the relationship arises because of how your partner copes with their workplace stress, and it impacts the quality of your relationship. For example, if your partner is experiencing a really stressful time at work, they can become avoidant—not wanting to talk about whatever is happening. Because they aren’t communicating, you might begin to think that their source of stress is you or the relationship, which affects the connection between the two of you.

Common Stressors. Your partner’s workplace can also create common (or general) stressors that impact you and the entire household. “For example, maybe the lack of opportunity to get a promotion at work can negatively affect my spouse, and at the same time that affects the level of financial security that the entire family experiences,” Wang says.


Whichever way your partner’s workplace stress is affecting you, it can lead to a high level of psychological distress, says Nina Westbrook, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Each partner then loses the ability to support the other, and they become emotionally depleted and unable to reasonably and effectively navigate within the relationship,” says Westbrook.

Before it reaches that point, she suggests that you and your partner consider five things.

  1. Create healthy boundaries. It’s important to support your significant other’s emotional needs—that’s part of having a compassionate relationship—but taking on their stress isn’t very effective. “We feel like we’re helping, but in turn we’re kind of emptying our cup while our partner is emptying their cup, and then there’s no one left to fill the cups back up because you’re both now drained and emotionally depleted.” Setting boundaries allows each of you to create ways to manage your own stress and helps you both move through stressful times better.
  2. Communicate. If you’re experiencing stress at work, communicate this to your partner. “This way, your partner is aware of the circumstances and in turn can more likely have patience and understanding as you work through the overly stressful time,” says Westbrook. And they’re less likely to attribute the stress to the relationship itself.
  3. Be considerate. Being aware of how much stress you’re feeling and how much of that you’re unloading on your partner is important. “You can start by asking your partner what their capacity is to listen prior to sharing,” says Westbrook. That can sound a little bit like, “I’m experiencing a lot of stress at work. Is this a good time for you to talk about it?”
  4. Get support. “One person cannot provide all of our emotional, social, romantic, intimate, and psychological needs. That’s a lot to ask,” says Westbrook. Talking to other people—a trusted colleague, a friend, or a therapist—about your workplace stress can alleviate some of the load that your partner takes on.
  5. Have a plan. If you know a stressful time is approaching in one (or both) of your professional lives, plan for it. You could schedule downtime each day (either alone or together), do stress-reducing meditations, or, if you have kids, plan for them to visit with their grandparents on weekends to help free up your mental space. Whatever it looks like for you, making adjustments can help reduce stress for you and your partner.

This article was originally published on goop