Forget Love Languages—Knowing Your Partner's Stress Language Can Make or Break Your Relationship

Plus, how to find your own

stress language man and woman embracing
Maskot/getty images

By now you’re likely familiar with the concept of love languages. The phrase was first coined in Dr. Gary Chapman’s best-selling book published in 1992, The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, and it refers to the five general ways that romantic partners express and experience love. Knowing your partner’s love language can lead to a host of benefits, including improving communication skills, deepening emotional connection, reducing misunderstandings and increasing relationship satisfaction. So let’s say you and your partner are already in touch with each other’s love languages (you’re all about quality time; they need physical touch)—that’s great. But what about each other’s stress languages? The concept of stress languages was coined by wellness expert Chantal Donnelly, “as a way of exploring our partner’s default tendencies or go-to behavioral patterns when they are in distress or overwhelmed,” she tells us. Read on to learn about what each of Donnelly’s five stress languages is, how to find yours and how knowing your partner’s can help your relationship.

Meet the Expert

Chantal Donnelly founded Body Insight Inc., a private clinic in Pasadena, CA, in 2006. There, she provides physical therapy and stress management services, combining traditional, hands-on therapy techniques (such as soft tissue techniques and joint mobilization), exercise and nervous system regulation (aka: tools for stress management) to help her patients through the recovery of various physical dysfunctions. She holds a master’s degree in physical therapy, a Pilates certification from BASI and is a certified Resilience Toolkit Facilitator. Donnelly has also released two video programs: Pain Free At Work and Strong Knees. Her book, Settled: How to Find Calm in a Stress Inducing World, is out now.

Every Zodiac Sign Has a Love Language—Here’s Yours

stress language woman sitting at computer upset
Westend61/getty images

What Are the 5 Different Stress Languages?

1. The Exploder

“This is an outwardly visible stress response that can look like irritation, frustration, anger or aggression. The exploder tends to point the finger at others for their distress. This stress language is what we would typically call a fight-or-flight response. No matter what the situation, the exploder will respond as if there is a crisis and will either get angry, get paranoid or have a sudden biological urge to storm off in the middle of a conversation.” 

2. The Imploder

“Less overt than the exploder, the imploder internalizes their stress and can become hopeless, helpless and paralyzed. There tends to be a lot of self-blame with this stress vernacular. The imploder may have difficulty making eye contact and may feel too numb to express emotions. As such, their affect can be muted and they can seem distant. They tend to want to hide from the world and their behavior will often be confused with ignoring or ‘ghosting’ others.”

3. The Fixer

“This stress response can sometimes look like a helpful response on the surface. Over time, however, it can turn into nagging, overstepping boundaries and not having faith in a partner’s capabilities. The fixer will go into immediate action and try to fix something, anything when they are stressed—even when there is nothing that needs fixing or what does need fixing is none of their business. The fixer will often act like a parent rather than a lover which can harm the relationship—especially in the bedroom.”

4. The Denier

“This can become a common pattern of protection for someone who has been taught (usually in childhood) to believe that showing signs of stress is a sign of weakness. The denier can look like a blind-to-reality optimist, a stoic shunning all emotion or someone who uses positivity to dismiss distress. You will hear a denier say, with a stiff upper lip, things like ‘Things could be worse’ or ‘I’m fine.’ The denier will bottle up their feelings and emotions until often morphing into an exploder or imploder.”

5. The Numb-er

“The numb-er uses escapism and distraction as a coping strategy. Someone who is numbing will turn to anything from alcohol or drugs, to online gaming, gambling, shopping, social media scrolling or bingewatching television. Even behaviors that outwardly appear to be healthy can be a numb-er’s favorite tool such as over exercising and over working.”

stress language smiling happy couple
Klaus Vedfelt/getty images

How Can Knowing Your Partner’s Stress Language Improve Your Relationship?

“The purpose of knowing your partner’s stress language isn’t so that you can label, blame, judge or fix them, as we often tend to do,” Donnelly explains. “Instead, stress language fluency allows for better connection because it stops us from automatically going into defense mode and being reactive.” Once you’re in tune with your partner’s stress language, you’re better able to avoid taking their comments or tone of voice, when they’re particularly stressed, personally. “We understand that their response isn’t necessarily about us but about their stress. In this way, we interact with our loved ones from a place of compassion and empathy rather than self-protection. Instead of putting up our emotional armor, we can get curious about what the other person might need as far as support. This can improve our relationships by fostering respect for one another and deeper connections.”

How Can You Figure Out Your Own Stress Language?

Donnelly tells us that the first step in discovering your own stress language is to notice your patterns. When you’re under stress, what’s your go-to response? Do you try to forget about it by turning to online shopping (like a numb-er), or do you blame yourself for your stress (like an imploder)?

Aside from noticing your own patterns, your partner may also be able to point out coping mechanisms you tend to use when stressed. “Instead of getting defensive when they share their observation, try to get curious and start to watch for the pattern in yourself,” Donnelly shares. “Once you become aware of your personal tendencies around others when you are stressed, you can use that knowledge as an opportunity to grow and signal that it is time to implement some self-care.” (Do note that, as with love languages, some people have more than one stress language, or you could have different stress languages depending on the relationship, so maybe you’re a fixer with your husband but a denier with your mom.)

Donnelly herself, for example, identifies as a fixer: “I am a fixer and when I am under a lot of stress I focus on my husband’s health, my son’s school grades or my friend’s financial woes even though those have nothing to do with what is causing my discomfort,” she notes. “The fixing is a distraction, not a solution.” Once you know what your stress language is, you can begin to find ways to calm yourself down. For Donnelly, “When I catch myself being a fixer, I now take some time for myself and turn to extra self-regulation tools. I might use some breathing techniques, go for a walk in nature, do some stretching or self-massage. After soothing myself a little and returning to my partner, my urge to fix something about them has magically dissolved and we can then connect in a healthy way. With a little self-regulation, my whole day shifts from one of struggle and intensity to one of ease and lightness.”

sarah stiefvater

Wellness Director

Sarah Stiefvater is PureWow's Wellness Director. She's been at PureWow for ten years, and in that time has written and edited stories across all categories, but currently focuses...