back to Relationships

Note: This post was reprinted with permission from LC Johnson, blogger and business coach at ColoredGirlConfidential. Check out her blog here. Find LC’s tools, training and consulting services here.

How do you deal when both you and your partner are stressed? What do you do when you and the person you usually turn to for support and advice are both going through an extended trying time?

This question has been at the top of my mind for the last few months. Why? Well because there has been a whole lotta stress floatin’ around my house as of late, that’s why! With my husband pursuing dual graduate school degrees, me starting a business, both of us planning a wedding, and oh, life just being its usual unpredictable self, there has been many a moment when both of us found ourselves frustrated, tired, or stressed at the exact same time.

When a feminist and a civil rights activist fall in love…

People often ask how it was that I ended up majoring in Women’s Studies in college. Did I go to college knowing that I wanted to be a Women’s Studies major? Ha! Hell no! (This is going somewhere related to the topic of this article, I promise! Just bear with me!)

I grew up in a family of strong women – none of whom had ever felt the slightest compulsion to call themselves a feminist, and at age eighteen knew nothing about Women’s Studies except for the fact that the intro class was held on Tuesday and Thursday and, given the rest of my schedule, enrolling meant no Monday or Friday classes.

Of course, as you may suspect, I ended up falling in love with much more than my class schedule. Growing up, my parents had put so much emphasis on my African-American identity, history, and heritage that I couldn’t help but feel proud and empowered to be a black American. The opportunity to consciously explore my identity and experience as a gendered person in society, however? That was a completely new ballgame for me.

My husband, meanwhile, spent his college years evolving into the a passionate anti-racist civil rights activist he is today. He often jokes that I see the world through a gendered lens, while he sees the world through a racial lense.

For instance, after we got married and I was deciding what I wanted to do with my last name, I pointed out that historically the “Mrs.” moniker was a signifier of a man’s ownership of his wife. Hubby pointed out that BOTH of our names were passed down from men who had once owned our ancestors, so really, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to be fighting so hard to keep either one of them.

Welcome to the marriage of a black feminist and a civil rights activist. Lol.

No topic is off limits in our household… except one.

Black people and the “who has it worse” disease

As a black person, a woman, and an activist, I am constantly analyzing, critiquing, and articulating the challenges that face my dual identities and paying attention to others analysis and critiques.

Interestingly enough, one of the most common ways to frame issues facing marginalized groups is by pitting said groups against one another in an effort to determine “who has it worse.” Black women, who are double minorities and deal with challenges facing both their gender and racial identity? Or black men, who historically have been maligned and disenfranchised at every turn?

Getting stuck in a circular debate about who is worse off has the ability to impact not only your social consciousness, but also your relationships. This zero-sum mentality can create in you a habit of constantly comparing your situation and your challenges to those around you and placing artificial judgements on “who has it worse” or who “deserves” to complain.

This is never a good emotional space to be in, but can be especially harmful when you are thrust into a situation where you are forced to manage your stress as well as that of your partner.

How to be supportive without comparing challenges or ignoring self care

So, how does one exchange support with a spouse (or best friend or favorite family member) without comparing challenges or forgoing your own emotional needs?

Over the last few months, I’ve developed a couple different strategies that allow me to be supportive without ignoring my own self-care. Since most women have an inclination to do both (care for others and ignore care for themselves), I decided it was far past time to open up a discussion around this tricky topic.

Here’s what works in my household:

Communicate.

This is, duh, one of the absolute most important things you can do in an intimate relationship where both people are in the midst of their own stressful existences. Contrary to popular belief, this starts with being honest about what you need and what you can give.

Note: Sometimes being honest can look like: cutting your losses; making someone else uncomfortable; appearing self-involved, impractical, or contradictory; or tuning into your intuition rather than “practical” advice.

It can feel strange (read: selfish) to be asking for what you need from someone who is clearly struggling themselves, but if both parties push themselves to exhibit this level of honesty, you will find that relationship (and your relations with your partner) are elevated to a whole other level of intimacy and authenticity.

Take turns being taken care of.

If you and your support system are both enduring an extended period of stress, it may be necessary to take turns taking care of one another and being taken care of. This can take the form of focusing an entire conversation on your particular challenge, or watching your spouse’s favorite television show or eating their favorite meal for dinner.

While I almost never advise any type of tit-for-tat accounting, especially in intimate relationships, the key with this strategy is making sure both people are getting the attention and support that they need. This requires communication, sacrifice, and a bit of mild scorekeeping!

Get outside help.

In most communities of color, counseling and therapy are still extremely stigmatized. However, getting professional help not only provides some additional support for the stressed out party but it is also an opportunity to bring in an outside, objective opinion into a (let’s freaking face it) emotional minefield.

Build a multi-faceted support system.

It’s never a good idea to put all of your eggs in one basket. In this case, having only one person in your life who you can lean on for love and advice and support can add unnecessary pressure to a relationship… and leave you with no place to turn if your go-to guy or girl is managing a challenge even crazier than yours.

Discussion:

Okay, your turn. Have you ever fallen into the “who has it worse” tailspin? How do you deal with both you and your partner (or main supporter) are both under a lot of stress? Share a strategy or two with the tribe!

LC Johnson is an award winning blogger, entrepreneur, educator and activist who believes that a world where women are emotionally fulfilled and financially empowered is a better world for everyone. She is the creator and editor of the award winning blog Colored Girl Confidential. Since launching CGC, the blog has been twice recognized by Forbes magazine as a top 100 website for women; and, LC has been featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, Duke Alumni Magazine, Policy Mic, and several other local and national publications. She is also the founder of My Sister's Keeper - the premier network and online training academy for women of color side hustlers and solopreneurs. At the end of 2013, Campbell’s Soup Co. named her one of the top five innovative female leaders of her generation. read more about