Free US shipping & free frother with your first Starter Kit subscription order

  Woman covering her face with her hands
< Back

How Crossover Stress Can Affect Your Relationships

And how to fix it

Nikhita Mahtani

We’ve all been there—you had a bad day at work, and all of a sudden, you’re in an argument with your partner. Or you’ve just dealt with a very difficult friendship conversation, and nothing your partner can say helps the situation so they begin to get on your nerves. It isn’t even their fault, but suddenly, you're taking all of your anger out on your partner. This is actually a common psychological phenomenon known as crossover stress, and there are several ways in which it can manifest in relationships.

What Is Crossover Stress?

“Stress crossover occurs in partnerships (generally a romantic partnership) when stress experienced by one partner affects the other partner's stress experience,” explains psychotherapist Dr. Lee Phillips, who specializes in couple’s therapy. “It’s usually indicative of workplace stress spilling into the relationship. We tend to think of our partners as separate people with their own individual lives, but we are far more connected than we think we are.” 

According to a recent research study by organizational psychologist Yi-Ren Wang, PhD, there are three types of crossover stress, and they can each interfere with the safety of your relationships in different ways:

Direct Crossover

This is defined as feeling your partner’s stress as if it were occurring to you. You may be overly empathetic to the point that you experience everything you're partner is experiencing as if it were also happening to you.

Indirect Crossover

Indirect crossover occurs when stress arises in the relationship because of transferred stress from another incident. Your partner may be upset about a work situation but takes their feelings out on you which leads to an argument.

Common Stressors

This type of stress occurs when your lifestyle changes as a result of a stressful situation that your partner is experiencing. For example, your partner may lose their job and as a result, your whole family experiences financial stress. Crossover stress caused by common stressors results in a tangible change in circumstance rather than just a shift in emotions or moods.

If left unchecked, all types of crossover stress can negatively impact a relationship, especially if you don’t know what’s going on. “You may find yourself avoiding your partner, bickering a lot, or walking on eggshells as a result of stress that isn’t yours,” adds NYC-based marriage counselor Jean Fitzpatrick. “When there’s outside stress, partners generally start arguing more than usual or ignoring one another. This means you’re not available as a valuable source of support, and your relationship is damaged at a time when you two most need it.”

How to Fix Crossover Stress

But don’t worry, there are ways around crossover stress. And awareness is the first step toward prevention. Luckily, we spoke with a couple of experts about how to ensure that stress stays where it belongs—outside the relationship.

Create Boundaries

“It is imperative for each partner to create a boundary between work and home,” says Fitzpatrick. “If you’re under a lot of stress at work, be sure to give yourself some transition time between your office or home office and time with your partner.” Oftentimes, you may find it more beneficial to start a routine that creates a boundary between work and home. Take a short walk after work before you drive home. Try taking a shower and changing your clothes when you get home before interacting with your partner. Work out or go for a run after work. Listen to music on your way home. Try incorporating a gratitude or breathwork practice into your routine. All of these things can help create a much-needed pause so that you or your partner can step away from stressful situations before they impact the relationship.

Have Consistent Relationship Check-ins

“If you see your partner is stressed, you should make time to support them so that the stress is contained in that conversation,” adds Fitzpatrick. “John Gottman of the research-based Gottman Institute recommends a ‘stress-reducing conversation’ with partners, where they alternate their worries.” 

During these stress-reducing conversations, each partner takes 15 minutes to describe the stressful situation in detail, while the other partner simply listens. “They don’t suggest solutions, but instead make eye contact, show empathy, and express support,” adds Fitzpatrick. This keeps the stress in a safe container, where it won’t spill out onto the other partner during inopportune moments.

Create a Plan

“Sometimes, you need tactical solutions to make sure that the stress stays away from your relationship,” adds Dr. Phillips. “Are there boundaries that you can help your partner set at work? Could you work out together or do something that helps relieve stress, like maybe hiring a housekeeper for menial tasks?” Whatever the solution, sometimes just knowing that you have an arsenal of options you can pull out when things get stressful can help stop the stress in its tracks or, at the very least, make it easier to manage.

Ask Questions

 “By asking questions about what your partner is going through when a stressful situation occurs, you allow emotional safety with your partner,” explains Dr. Phillips. “This is an intimacy builder, and provides additional support.” He includes some prompts that can help you figure out what to say to your partner during a particularly busy time or transition. "What can I do to support you? Have I supported you enough lately? How can I make you feel more supported? Is there anything I can do to make you feel cared for?" 

Consider Outside Support

“Remember that talking with your partner about stress is part of any relationship, but inflicting the stress on them is not,” says Fitzpatrick. “Your partner may not be able to meet all your needs for support, especially if the stress directly impacts him or her. In that case, you may need to talk with a trusted friend or a helping professional.” Having an outside perspective can help conversations stay on track and provide an unbiased opinion.

While crossover stress can negatively impact your relationship in the moment, making sure to repair and be considerate of one another’s feelings can minimize the damage caused, as well as prevent stress from impacting your relationship in a similar way in the future. “No partner is an island: When one is stressed, the other is bound to feel it, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” concludes Fitzpatrick. “It’s what we do with the stress that matters.”

Nikhita Mahtani is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has been featured in publications including GP, InStyle and Allure magazine,

Similar Reads

  • The Environmental Impacts of Coffee
    Alexa Peters
  • The History of Bicycle Day
    Damon Orion
  • Does Ayahuasca Really Cleanse Toxins From the Body?
    Damon Orion
  • MUD\WTR Mushrooms—Separating Fact From Fiction
    Katie Maloney

Friday newsletter

Get to first base with enlightenment