This week I noticed several changes in my private practice. The novelty of staying at home had worn off. People are starting to receive bad news in higher numbers. The loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, the loss of security and the loss of freedom is all beginning to add up to stress, frustration, sadness, grief and fear. One of the difficult byproducts of all this negative emotion is conflict.
Over the course of the week, I had several crisis calls from people overwhelmed by conflict. I read an article about the increased rates of calls to domestic violence hotlines. The virus has taken whatever stressful events we were already dealing with in our lives and has put those events on steroids.
Imagine if you are a couple who recently blended families. As you try to create a new, blended family, at least you have the distraction and routines of life to make the transitions easier. You have school, sports, work, and time with friends to help you cope. Well, you did. That all changed with the virus and the stay at home order. Now the new family gets to be together all day everyday without distraction.
What if you were having real marital problems as the virus hit? You are now unable to take a break for work and friends and life. You are home, dealing with the marital issues all day long. What if you were dealing with the fallout from an affair?
Even if you weren’t having marital trouble before the virus, you might be now. People are having very different responses to the pandemic. Some are more relaxed, wanting to maintain some normalcy, while others are wanting strict lockdowns. This can create conflict. Conflict is also coming from the stress of trying to work from home and homeschool your kids. Who is in charge of the school? Who has to make the stressful run to the grocery store? You get my gist. This is stress at a 10!
The sad reality is that people are dealing with much more than we thought possible just one month ago. The good news is that you are not alone. If you are suffering from grief, you are among thousands of people dealing with the same thing. If you are dealing with job loss or reduced income, you are one of millions facing the same challenges. There is a community of people to reach who can support you, no matter what you are facing.
As a psychologist who treats lots of couples, my hope this week is to give you some tools to decrease the rate and intensity of conflict. I’m not a magician and this is a real crisis, so conflict is going to happen. My hope is to give some basic tools to help each and every one of us deal with our feelings and stress in a more appropriate way that will create much less conflict.
Here is the truth. Many people will displace their frustration and fear onto their loved ones from time to time. Because we are around each other more, and because our feelings are heightened, there are going to be times we lose our cool. Displacement is a defense mechanism in which we “displace” our frustration from one event onto another. Your boss yells at you and you can’t yell back, so you come home and yell at the dog. Displacement of feelings is going to happen given the nature of this illness and the fallout it is causing. We often take a feeling we can’t contain and share it in unhelpful ways with the people we love. We do this partially because we feel safe. If you lose it with your spouse, you do so knowing that the marriage won’t end.
In this week’s podcast I go into depth about lots of specific tools that I use to help couples deal with conflict. I cannot cover all the tools in the newsletter, so I highly recommend you listen in to the podcast. I am going to highlight some of the main, tools I discuss in the podcast.
You can listen to me talk through this in the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below or in the following places:
If you want to decrease conflict during this pandemic, a few things will be incredibly helpful.
- Be mindful of your emotional state and communicate this to your family. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had days where I wasn’t feeling ok. I have had two days where I woke up feeling both down and irritable and I couldn’t readily identify why. I knew enough to express this to my family so that I could alter their level of expectations. If you know you are struggling, tell others. Say something basic like, “I’m feeling off today. My energy is low and I’m kind of irritable, so I’m going to work and read and rest.” Communicating has the power to impact how you are treated. You will get support and space and kindness. If you try to hide how you are feeling, your family will be confused when you say irritable things or seem to be avoiding them. Communicate, communicate, communicate!
- Instead of discussing minor issues that may be annoying you, decide to let things go. How many times do you get to hear a psychologist tell you not to talk about a problem? Not very often! However, people are all starting from a place of heightened sensitivity and stress right now. When you want to scream at your kids for messing up the kitchen for the 7th time in a day, realize that you are mostly mad that this has disrupted your life and your sanity. Be mindful that your frustration is about so much more than the dishes. Yelling about the dishes wouldn’t help and would create more stress is an already taxed system. Choose instead to LET IT GO!
- Increase your empathy by a factor of 10! Ok, I made up the number, but you get the point. Your kids are stressed, even if you can’t see it. They are social beings who like to move and play and be away from home with their friends. They are all stuck at home and, believe it or not, even they get sick of video games. Kids might not have the language to discuss their stress, but it’s there and it will come at you in the form of rebellion, or sassiness or withdrawal. Help them express what they are feeling. Use empathy as much as possible to see that people are struggling all around us.
- Don’t take things personally or respond with defensiveness. A tool I use with my clients is to behave like an anthropologist when your spouse or kids are coming at you with excessive feeling. If your kid yells, “I can’t concentrate in this house when you cook fish. It is so disgusting!” remember that you don’t have to let the comment sink in. You don’t have to get defensive. You can wonder what is happening and ask a great question. “I can see that fish is really getting to you, can you help me understand why?” If you get defensive and respond with an equal measure of anger, you have lost the opportunity to help your child communicate. We must all be learning to communicate and puts words to a novel situation. None of us has lived through anything like this before and we don’t know what is going to surface. Be curious! Investigate without defensiveness and you will become a teacher and a healer. And obviously, it isn’t about the fish!
- Create boundaries in new ways. One tool we use when we need a break is to create boundaries. This is harder from a shared space, so be creative. You can put on headphones and listen to music or podcasts while tuning out your family. You can go take a long shower or a bath. You can go for a walk or run outside to get a break. We need to create new ways to get emotional space and emotional freedom while having little actual freedom. Be creative and communicate your ideas to your family. It will help them have a sense of control over their emotional lives. The better you feel, the less conflict you will have. The more self-care you use, the less you will displace your feelings onto others.
- Get professional help! If you are having trouble with conflict, please get a professional to help. The funny thing about having a weekly appointment is that conflict goes way down before any treatment begins. The reason for this is because simply adding accountability to a situation shifts the behavior. Knowing that on Tuesday at 2:00, you will have to tell your therapist how you behaved during the week creates a feedback loop that is positive. Then the therapist can give you tools for your specific problems.
I could go on and on. Use I statements when you fight. Don’t use the words always or never. And here is the last pearl of wisdom in this newsletter, if by some miracle, you made it this far. Be wiling to blame the virus and all the fallout from the virus for the problem as opposed to your partner. This is a crisis and in a crisis, the environment has much more power than we usually give it credit for. This isn’t the time to question whether or not you made the right decision to move in together. This isn’t the time to question whether or not your partner handles stress well. This is the time to come together in a common goal. The goal is for all of us to get through this together.
Shannon Connery, Ph.D.