All relationships go through phases of highs and lows, and sometimes those rocky periods can take a real toll on physical, mental, and emotional health. In order to both take care of yourself and make sure you can show up at your best in your relationship, it’s important to have a range of self-care tools in your arsenal. In this article we’d like to share with you our top tips for practicing self care when your relationship is going through a difficult phase. Ironically, such times are both exactly when self care is the most necessary, and exactly when one is most likely to neglect self care. Try these ideas to lower your stress and have more to give to your relationship.
Take Time to Yourself
Most people are either ‘waves’ or ‘islands’ when confronted with relationship conflict. Islands tend to isolate themselves, whereas waves tend to seek excessive closeness and validation in a bid to re-establish connection. For the waves among us, it’s important to remember to take care of oneself by taking time away from one’s partner in order to re-center and de-stress. Continuing to seek excessive connection during a period of conflict can lead to more stress and doesn’t allow for the space needed to address the difficulties from a calm, clear headspace. On the flip side, islands should take all the alone time they need, but they should also be mindful of verbally reminding their partners that their intention is simply to recharge and regroup and not to push them away.
Practice Meditation or Hitbodedut
By now, almost everyone has heard about the many benefits of mindfulness and meditation practices. They can lower stress (including physiological markers of stress, such as cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure), help with focus, attention, and problem solving, and even make us more compassionate. Of course, the benefits of meditation depend entirely on what style of meditation is selected–a simple breathing meditation will not be particularly helpful in improving one’s ability to visualize images in their mind’s eye, for example, but a visualization meditation could absolutely be helpful in this way. Some types of mindfulness practices can even act as your secret weapon against conflict escalation.
When it comes to relationship conflict, we recommend any of the exercises from the online Palouse Mindfulness 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, and/or practicing metta meditation (in which you cultivate feelings of goodwill and send kind intentions to various people in your life). This meditation can help to lower stress and increase affection towards your partner at the same time. Astoundingly, it has actually been shown to cause structural changes in areas of the brain associated with empathy and positive emotions (Bibeau et. al., 2015) in regular practitioners.
Alternatively, if these styles of meditation don’t appeal to you but you’d still like to do a contemplative self-care practice, try hitbodedut instead. Hitbodedut is a form of Jewish meditation in which traditionally, the practitioner simply talks to God continuously without stopping. This practice can be adapted to the individual in that instead of speaking to a God, one could also speak to their higher self, the flying spaghetti monster, Krishna, the universe, or whatever they believe in. The only rule is that you’re not allowed to stop talking in the middle of the practice. You can’t stop to think about what to say next. The emphasis is on talking, not thinking and planning a speech. If you can’t come up with anything to say, you can simply repeat “I don’t know what to say” or “I feel stupid”. Simply verbalize whatever arises in the moment. A multitude of hitbodedut practitioners have found this to be a very effective and powerful way to think through situations in a less ‘thinky’ way than usual. New angles and insights often arrive through hitbodedut practice, making it an ideal way to navigate rough patches in relationships. Sometimes a good hitbodedut session is all one needs to figure out how to get unstuck and move forward.
Take Care of Your Physical Health
When times are tough, it’s all too easy to fall off the bandwagon of health practices like exercise, healthy eating, and getting good sleep. To make matters worse, relationship stressors can wreak havoc on our abilities to meet our health-related needs. Many people lose their appetites completely or become unable to sleep well as a direct result of a rough patch in a relationship.
Make sure to pay attention to whether you’re eating, exercising, and sleeping enough. If you’re not eating enough because you feel physically sick from the stress, consider adding in some extra mild and easy-to-digest foods in order to get your body the nutrients and calories it needs to function well. For example, toast, white rice, and soups can go a long way towards getting those calories in without upsetting a reluctant belly. Or, if you tend to stress eat large quantities of unhealthy foods when you’re upset, gently check whether most of these foods are actually nourishing your body. It’s fine to eat extra when you’re stressed; try to focus less on quantity and more on quality. For example, eating extra broccoli every day for a few weeks will do you much more of a service than eating extra white bread with butter every day for a few weeks.
And if you don’t feel like you’re getting enough Z’s in, here are some popular natural remedies that you can look into!
-Valerian root (comes in a capsule)
-Melatonin (the sleep hormone naturally secreted by our brains)
-Passionflower extract (a mildly sedating tincture)
-Lettuce tea (yes, seriously, it’s sedating)
During a rough patch, it’s extra-important to get enough exercise because exercise helps to decrease stress. Not everyone is a gym rat, and that’s cool–but do make sure you’re regularly engaging in some form of physical activity, whether that’s 6000 steps per day, doing HIIT workouts at home, or going to yoga classes. You will likely notice a marked reduction in your stress levels as a result of regular exercise.
Evening of Indulgence
Stereotypes about broken-hearted women eating chocolate or ice cream while watching romantic comedy movies are alive and well, and for good reason. While indulging in hedonistic pleasures on the reg might not always be good for one’s health, it is ok to give yourself a treat from time to time–especially when you’re trying to decompress amid relationship stress.
This doesn’t mean you should devolve into complete lack of discipline, but it does mean you might suspend discipline temporarily in order to help yourself de-stress. We suggest planning an evening of indulgence for yourself: For one evening, you indulge in all the pleasures you can. You might actually eat an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s while watching Dirty Dancing, or your night of pleasure might look more like taking a bubble bath while singing along to Ariana Grande on high volume, or drinking a bottle of wine over a candlelit dinner for one, or getting a massage and then taking a nap. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to unwind and indulge.
During this evening, the objectives are to reduce stress, treat yourself, and not think too much about your relationship. We recognize that that last one can be hard. It’s like when someone says “don’t think about a pink elephant” and then the only thing you can think about is a pink elephant. Trying not to think of something is virtually impossible! So instead of actively trying not to think about your relationship, give your mind something else to think about. If simply concentrating on the pleasures you’re experiencing during your night of indulgence is enough, that’s great. If not, you can have some other topics on deck for when your mind starts to wander back towards your relationship. You might even keep a list of your ‘on deck’ topics. They should be engaging enough to sufficiently distract you from relationship concerns long enough to get you off that track when it arises, but they shouldn’t be stress-inducing. Think of plans for your next weekend getaway with your friends instead of mentally surveying your to-do list at work, for example.
Prenups are Self-Care, Too
Most rocky phases in relationships are just that–phases. They usually fade out over time. However, a prenup can help both of you to look out for your own and each other’s interests just in case a rough patch turns out to be something more. The unfortunate reality is that a huge proportion of marriages do end in divorce (check out our recent article on how many marriages end in divorce), although we are huge proponents of the viewpoint that splitting up does not equal failure. No matter what your thinking is around divorce, it’s undeniable that divorce is a huge part of the landscape of relationships in our day and age. Not making a contingency plan in case of divorce is akin to trying to get around purchasing liability insurance for your car: unnecessarily risky and some would say inviting of bad luck.
A prenup is akin to many types of self-care in that it might be uncomfortable to do (like pushups, meditation, and drinking that nasty healthy tea that’s good for your immune system) but it’s an investment in your long-term wellbeing. There are two main ways a prenup is a long-term investment in your wellbeing:
1. It prompts you to communicate in great detail about how finances will be managed during your marriage, saving you a lot of stress and miscommunication that could come up later on without having had such discussions up front.
2. It gives you a secure financial backup plan so that you don’t have to quietly wonder ‘what if’. It also empowers the two of you to decide for yourself what will happen to your assets in case of divorce, instead of leaving that decision in the cold, disconnected hands of a judge who doesn’t know you or your marriage.
Feel free to add your own self-care practices to this repertoire. Remember that in order to face the challenges that being in a relationship sometimes throws your way, it’s crucial to take care of yourself so that you have the clarity, energy, and presence to show up as your best self in your relationship.
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