April 1, 2020

Looking at a new normal – #2

In my office, I frequently have a patient relate to me that their spouse or partner has recently retired, and without meaning to be sexist in this matter, let me say that it’s usually women who tell me about this. With more time in the home, this newly retired partner becomes interested in the operation of the household, maybe for the first time in their many years together. While a routine has been established, or a series of routines, to accomplish things around the home, all of a sudden, the recent retiree is on hand to make suggestions for how things might be done differently. He (and it is often “he”) steers the planning of menus, commandeers the kitchen, or submits ideas for activities that disrupt the “normal flow” for the partner who has spent more time organizing the household. These are done with the most generous of intentions, but I’m told this is, well—it’s disorienting, and sometimes frustrating, for most of them.

Enough people have mentioned it that I know it is a common experience, and I was thinking about this phenomenon as so many people are working from home—or out of work due to company closures—during the pandemic. If you live with another adult it is likely that new frustrations and conflicts will arise, and all I can say is, “It’s great preparation for retirement!”

As early requests for social distancing gave way to more restrictive mandates to “stay home, remain inside, discontinue gathering in groups,” we are interacting more closely with the members of our immediate household. Anxiety about potential avenues of contamination increase the tensions we experience. Adjusting to actual retirement will not have the added challenge of dealing with a dangerous virus, but it’s certain there will be issues and obstacles to face then, too. With hopes that our days and weeks of self-quarantine will offer opportunities for closeness with our loved ones, I began to think of ways to smooth out the inevitable bumps in the road that households will encounter.

For suggestions, I find myself turning to psychologists John and Julie Gottman of Seattle. Over the past four decades, skill-based books and workshops by the Gottmans have gained international praise. There’s no exploration of childhood, or years of psychoanalysis, with the Gottmans. Anyone can make productive use of their commonsense suggestions. They have researched and written about ideas and behaviors that we can all use, especially during the close confinement we’re experiencing now.

In general, it comes down to taking personal responsibility, whether we are living with a spouse, a roommate, or with children. In any new and disconcerting situation, there will be times of conflict or irritation. Recognizing that these times are only natural, it’s possible to learn simple skills for getting back on track more quickly when they do happen. And, please note that when I say, “simple” that does not always mean “easy.”

1. I have to be responsible for myself. I can change only my own behavior. I can communicate only for myself and commit to my own changes in attitude. 

2. I can view the other persons in my household for the wonderful human beings that they are. Of course they make mistakes, of course they screw up from time to time. But if I remind myself often of their very best attributes, and the qualities of character that I love about them, it will be easier to deal fairly and reasonably with them in times of stress.

3. A nugget of pure Gottman gold can be found in the skill of “repair attempts” after you’ve gotten off track with someone else. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, maybe even an hour, to slow your thinking and your heart rate, after an unpleasant interaction with a family member, but then what? Do you sulk, give the silent treatment, or mentally develop ways to continue the argument? The Gottmans offer numerous ways to repair relationships that have been interrupted by conflict, the simplest is with a gentle statement, “I’d like to get back on track with you”.

This kind of opening statement is often enough to have family members turning toward one another in renewed affection. To offer apology, or admit that you haven’t listened, or maybe didn’t communicate well, can be a big help, too. 

It’s important that I offer this reminder however: recognize that the valuable, kind human you have approached for relationship repair has been dealing with her/his own anxieties and burdens of care during this unusual period of isolation. It’s possible that more than one repair attempt will be needed. Giving the benefit of the doubt is more warranted than ever right now. If, later in the day, you find a quiet moment to ask, “Will you tell me about what this has been like for you? Are there concerns you haven’t been able to talk about with me?” Sharing your hopes and dreams with your partner is a relationship builder under any circumstance, but it may also be worthwhile to speak about what you most fear or have doubts about. And these suggestions are not limited to conversations between spouses—not at all. While parents won’t want to discuss concerns that might alarm children, it’s certainly helpful to talk about how unusual the situation is, and model appropriate ways to express feelings. 

With the continuing message to “stay home, stay healthy,” we face—as in all new and demanding circumstances—the possibility of finding a silver lining. By deliberately slowing down to look for the ways this situation brings out strengths of character or new avenues for communication, we will do better now, and emerge in better shape as this crisis resolves.

A note on resources: John and Julie Gottman’s work is available online through booksellers and libraries, as well as in articles and a few television segments. I recommend their work, particularly for couples, but the suggestions are widely appropriate, and are easily understood by everyone. You can learn more on their website at https://www.gottman.com 

Posted in: General @ 2:15 pm