How can I help my wife reduce her stress levels?
March 21, 2012 6:53 PM   Subscribe

My wife is struggling with stress levels at work. How can I help her reduce them without patronising her, and at the same time stop being so selfish when dealing with her stress?

How can I help reduce my wife's stress levels?

My wife is a high school teacher, and for various reasons her job has recently become a lot more stressful (ill discipline in school, colleagues taking maternity leave and senior management not supporting its staff the way it should). All this is making life very unpleasant for my wife right now, raising her already high stress levels to the point where I genuinely worry that she's going to burn out, hard.

My wife has traditionally not coped well with high levels of stress. She has quite a pessimistic outlook on life and has some anger management problems - a combination that manifests as a tendency to lash out verbally when under pressure, usually at me (because I'm the only person to whom she will show her stress levels).

She's well organised, most of the time, which reduces the problem somewhat, however she doesn't keep good track of the work she needs to do. When she makes the effort to use a todo list, she seems a lot more relaxed, but she always falls back to the same situation: working late into the night (though not always, to me, necessarily) and panicking that she's going to be found out as a poor teacher (which she isn't; I know that this is imposter syndrome writ large; she consistently gets excellent evaluations for her work).

Normally I deal reasonably well when she's stressed. I often help her work through complex problems with the teaching material (she teaches one of the more fiddly sciences), and will readily listen to her vent about her day since I know that there's no-one else to whom she can speak so frankly. She has very little self confidence, and I work hard to shore it up; she has body image issues and is convinced, despite a decade-and-a-half relationship during which I've been nothing but faithful, that I'm one day going to realise what a poor wife she is and leave her for someone else.

I try very hard to be patient with her, and to talk to her calmly when she's yelling. However, the yelling does occasionally wear on me, and I have started to walk away until she calms down, which I'm not wholly sure is helping (and feels more than a little bit selfish).

So, hive mind, how can I:

1: Help my wife reduce her stress levels.
2: When she's stressed, and shouting, deal with it in a less selfish manner.
3: Do 1 and 2 without seeming patronising or passive-aggressive.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It seems to me that you are already doing a lot to help her deal with the stress. But she also has to take some responsibility and I don't think it's selfish at all to walk away if she is yelling at you. In fact, sometimes it's the only way to deal with a situation that could easily get worse if you feel that you can't continue to respond calmly. It's actually a bit selfish of her to continue yelling at you if you aren't responsible for her stress.
posted by dg at 7:18 PM on March 21, 2012

Hi, I teach high school too and really wonder how teachers manage to stay married when we are often furious, tired, up too early and freaking out about all sorts of different things!:)

I think that she needs to not yell at you and that you need to be clear about that. She would really really do well to have a 'work friend' she can commute with, go for a drink with, or be running partners with (I did first 2 when I started teaching and miss my teacher friends who have since moved/moved on!). So, leaving the room is fine. You are not her stress ball to squeeze and torture- plus it doesn't seem to be working anyway!!

She needs to go to therapy and I recently started going to acupuncture which shockingly seems to work well too. She needs to figure out a way to de-stress en route home so she is not bringing it back with her.

She needs to figure out a better schedule (again, a school friend could help with this) since working into the night is unnecessary unless it's her first or second year.

Honestly, with the stress, body image issues, need of a release and time management issues, don't you think all roads point to her needing some kind of exercise program? Like walking home from work, or part-way at least? Or doing something every evening, even if it's only walking around the neighborhood with or without you with the imperative NOT to talk about school? It sounds like she is just living school 24-7 and it is burning her out, of course.

Exercise, therapy...exercise as therapy. Both required.

(Re shouting- be MORE selfish. She can't shout at you- she shouldn't even be shouting at her students but she definitely should not be shouting at you. Even I know that, as a fellow occasionally quite angry teacher!) Maybe you need an evening exercise activity too, to be out of the house if she is resistant to changing her own behaviour.
posted by bquarters at 7:27 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Surprise her by doing all -- ALL -- the housework and cooking and bill paying and every other tedious household thing for a week. (And do it really well - half-assed will come off as half-hearted.) Tell her you're doing it because she deserves it after all the stress she's been going through.

Show you're listening by mirroring what she says and asking questions that show interest in her feelings: "Your boss said X? Really? Why do you think she said that?"

Make her feel like she's doing a good job by praising her expertise: "That's a really cool lesson you drew up. I'm sure the kids will like it. I wish I'd had a teacher like you when I was a kid."

Acknowledge and praise her success at dealing with the stress so far: "I'm impressed by how well you are handling all the stress you've had at work lately. A lot of other people would burn out and give up under these circumstances."

When the body image issues come up, tell her you married her for her big sexy brain, but the fact that her body is ALSO hot has always been a nice bonus. When you complement her through the course of the day, don't say boring, automatic-sounding things like "You're beautiful." Say, "That shirt brings out the color of your eyes" or "Your legs look really nice in that skirt" or "I could look at the sun shining on your hair like that all day." (By the way, most women these days have body image issues. This is not a problem that is at all unique to your wife. It's nice that you want to help her feel better about herself, but, in the interests of not coming off as condescending toward her, always keep in mind that this isn't simply "her" issue -- it's a society-wide problem.)

In the moments when she's shouting and you feel like you can't handle it, have you tried just saying, "I'm on your side"? I think you are well within your rights to have a conversation with her -- not during a time when she's already upset and yelling, but during a totally calm moment -- where you let her know that yelling stresses YOU out.
posted by BlueJae at 7:28 PM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

All teachers need therapy. She may need help learning how to draw all kinds of boundaries (time, emotional availability to students, etc.). If I'd been smart about that, I might still be teaching.

I disagree that better time management prevents teacher homework: even if she managed her to-do list perfectly, she'd still be working late into the night--it's one of those jobs where there's always something that needs doing, even during the summer.

Seriously, teachers have people angry at them all day, every day and it's hard to deal with. With that said, it is in no way okay that she's taking this out on you (I say as someone guilty of this sin in the past). I think you need a sit-down with her at her most (relatively) relaxed part of the week and say something like, "Wife, I love you so much. You are awesome and you do awesome work. That awesome work is hard on you in lots of ways and you take it home a lot. I support the awesome work that you do, but we need to find a better way for you deal with the crazy-levels of stress I know you're under because sometimes you take it out on me. I love you so much, but I do not love being subject to your decompression from work. What can we do to deal with this situation?" And maybe having a therapist around for this conversation wouldn't be a bad thing.

I have seen the emotional and professional demands of teaching destroy marriages, but I have also known plenty of happily married and excellent teachers as well. It's possible. She just needs to learn how to take the papers home without the work. It's hard. I couldn't.
posted by smirkette at 7:44 PM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

My husband and I made it a house rule, some time ago, that when it came to venting and frustration we were required, by this rule, to treat each other AT LEAST as well as we would treat a trusted co-worker or friend when venting about the same topic. Very few of us, when relieving stress and pressure about work/projects/poor management/personal treatment with a co-worker or friend would yell, demean (the friend or ourselves), or become otherwise upsettingly irrational. There is actually little reason to indulge in those things with your most trusted and intimate partner, and in fact, in that context, it can actually make everything feel much worse and less manageable because your loving partner simply cannot have the same perspective as a co-worker and yet becomes subject to worse treatment. So, then, the stress builds at work AND at home.

I like smirkette's script for this, as well as bquarters personal insight. It seems sort of elementary to make "house rules" but in the heat of the moment, we sometimes need those external boundaries. My partner and I have found that with this rule in place, we are more likely to seek out healthy outlets to this kind of pressure (calling a co-worker, working out) and then using each other for the kinds of support that makes sense in an intimate partnership (holding, extra chores, esteem-building, sex).

I think this is a great opportunity for therapy, too--just to get started in a way of thinking that supports both you.
posted by rumposinc at 7:53 PM on March 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

Walking away from somebody who is yelling at you is perfectly appropriate and not at all selfish. Being another person's punching bag is enabling, not generous.

You might care to say "Do not yell at me" before walking away. Say it clearly and as calmly as you can possibly manage. You might care to give her a heads-up some time when the stress isn't peaking and you're capable of rational adult-adult communication that you will be doing exactly this the next time she does yell at you.

People with anger management issues need incentives to make actually managing their anger seem like their best option. Instant withdrawal of a supportive partner upon being yelled at is a pretty good incentive. Helping your wife improve her ability to manage her own anger will not only help you, but pay dividends for her at work.
posted by flabdablet at 8:06 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm also a teacher. Been teaching 3 years and have yet to maintain a successful relationship at the same time. It really is that hard.

Has she spoken to her principal/HR rep about this? If she truly feels like she's about to burn out or become overwhelmed, she should ask her supervisor what they can do to help her. An extra prep, a TA, etc. She should approach her supervisor with a specific request ("I've been overwhelmed lately and would really love to have Responsible Student helping me out with grading. Is this a possibility?") and see what her boss says.

If her performance evaluations are good, her boss will probably want to help her out. The hard part for your wife might be admitting that she needs extra help. However, if she likes her job and wants to continue teaching, she has to ask for what she needs.
posted by brynna at 10:06 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been a stressed and cranky wife with imposter-syndrome, snarkiness & body issues.

Joint weekend meal planning, grocery shopping & dinner prep were all things that helped us... Making sure I eat properly helps with my snark problem, as has my husband calling me on it gently & me making a conscious effort to reduce it.

I think doing what you can to get exercise into both your lives would be great. For me, a combination of scheduled exercise with a friend, and getting pulled out for an after dinner walk both helped make exercise a regular part of my life.

Remind yourselves that exercise makes the brain stronger & healthier. 20+ minutes every day will make the work flow faster if it has to be done.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 5:46 AM on March 22, 2012

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