If your experience of 2020 and early 2021 feels like the above image, you’re not alone! No matter what side of the political fence you’ve embraced it has been a year of loss, constraints, hopelessness, helplessness, hatred, anxieties and extreme division, often among members of the same family, or among friends. Not only have most of us faced differences which have felt toxic and relationship-breaking, but a daily onslaught of information and news about catastrophic events, happening now, or about to unfold. I think there has been a collective experience of trauma in this country, and probably in many places around the world. Covid 19 illnesses and deaths, loss of income, loss of faith in the System, violence, racism, uncertainty.
To that point I’m encouraging everyone to pause and reflect on a few things:
How have you been coping and how well has it served you?
- Over-drinking or drugging?
- Reviewing the horrors frequently with peers who get it?
- Over-eating or over-indulging in comfort foods or sugar?
- Targeting your loved ones with rage-outs?
- Overspending on Amazon?
- Denying anything unusual is happening and proceeding without any cautions or adjustments?
- Over-working and sacrificing sleep / self care rituals?
- Over-thinking and going to catastrophic conclusions?
In my psychotherapy practice I’ve seen how people’s responses to the trauma either exacerbate or alleviate some of the stress, bring people together for support and meaningful action or tear them apart. Depression and anxiety are off the charts now as people struggle with feelings and thoughts that can become runaway trains in response to such triggering events.
So, instead of going through a long list of more functional coping mechanisms I’m encouraging you all to begin by examining the strategies you’re already using and taking an honest look at how well these strategies are serving you. If they calm and energize you, at what cost to yourself or others? If they provide relief, how momentary or enduring is it? Do your coping mechanisms give you any sense of meaning, agency, or connection to others whom you respect and trust? Are you finding any joy amidst all this madness? Are you protecting your mental and physical health, or has that been one price of how you’ve tried to manage?
All meaningful change begins with Contemplation, so give that it’s due. Then, if you decide to seek out different coping tools you’ll be readier to use them intentionally, creatively and effectively.
I’m reprinting a brief article I received from the Gottman Institute about how to approach your partner with a complaint without the complaint getting experienced as a criticism, or an attack on their character. This “softened startup” is an approach I’ve been advocating for years to couples, but I thought it was very succinctly captured in the Gottman’s article. Here it is:
In the last Marriage Minute, we talked about Criticism, the first of the Four Horsemen. To review, criticism is an attack on your partner’s character or personality, often starting with “you always” or “you never.” Or you can be more direct with criticism: “You are so lazy,” or, “That’s just like you, finding any excuse not to spend time with me.”
Fortunately, it’s reversible.
The antidote to Criticism is what we call The Softened Start-Up.
To soften your start-up means to approach a conversation with how you’re feeling about the situation, not your perception of your partner’s flaws or behavior. There’s a difference between complaints and criticism. A complaint addresses a specific instance or action and acknowledges how it made you feel.
A good formula to remember is:
“I feel [your feeling]”
- left out
“About [the specific behavior, not a pattern of behavior]”
- “when I’m not invited to virtual happy hours with your friends,”
- “when you don’t read the articles I send you,”
- “when we don’t have dinner together.”
“And I need [state the positive need].”
- “to know what your preferred evening schedule looks like and how I can be a part of it,”
- “to feel like you’re interested in the things I care about,”
- “to spend some quality time together this week.”
Practice softening your start-up.
The most prevalent problem I deal with in my work as a psychotherapist with individuals and couples is the issue of how people talk to each other when they’re trying to manage conflict. And “conflict” isn’t always about big ticket items, like how to handle a kid’s bad behavior, or who is spending how much money. Conflict can be about who forgot to feed the dog or who did a lousy job declining an invitation to a party. It can be about anything where there’s an experience of difference or disappointment or hurt or aggravation or frustration. (The list goes on and on).
So, if you notice a fair amount of escalation or reactivity or avoidance or defensiveness or criticism in your marriage you may need some help. You’ll want to first understand how the tactics you and your spouse use may be destructive and why. You’ll also want to know how these behaviors can become part of a toxic pattern which may put you at a higher risk for divorce. Most importantly, you’ll want some tools for how to deal with conflict in more mature, constructive and respectful ways so the two of you don’t become a nasty statistic.
You can even practice together with your partner, giving advice to an imaginary couple who struggles with criticism. For example, how would you soften “You always leave dirty dishes in the sink”?
You can also apply this formula to positive things—”I feel cared for when you check in to see how my day is going!”
For a quick primer on all of this I’d recommend that you listen to my latest podcast on BlogTalk Radio about this subject. In just 30 minutes I condense the subject sufficiently so you’ll be better equipped in this department. After that, it just takes practice, practice, practice, like anything else that matters in life.
Here’s the link to the podcast:
*If you need some help with this issue because you either get too distracted or overwhelmed or discouraged on your own, then contact me for an appointment at my Portsmouth office at 603-431-7131
In this 30 minute episode I explore the frequently experienced issue of standoffs or impasses in marriage – those times when couples get “locked in” to a negative sequence when nobody feels heard or acknowledged, and nothing gets resolved. These “lock-in’s” can be about critical issues of importance or minor things, but the feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness generally feel quite awful for each spouse.
Tune in to get some handy tools this couples therapist can teach you to interrupt the impasses, manage yourself more calmly, and move forward with your spouse in a more conciliatory manner.
Join me and have to option to be live on the air with questions or comments by calling toll-free 877-497-9046.
If you can’t make the live podcast you can stream it anytime at: www.BlogTalkRadio.com/SusanLager.
In this 45 minute podcast I’ll meet with Lisa McNally, a mother of three who has 20+ years of experience working with divorcing individuals, couples and families in all aspects of family law matters including divorce, separation, child custody, co-parenting and parental rights.
Lisa is also a co-author of the Amazon best selling book Divorce: Taking the High Road: Simple Strategies for Creating a Healthy Divorce
As a Divorce Coach, Lisa supports and guides individuals experiencing divorce one-on-one, helping them navigate the often lengthy, stressful and convoluted process in a dignified way. Her clients benefit by having her by their side to help them make the best possible decisions for themselves and their children based on their unique interests, needs, concerns, and goals.
Tune into the podcast and learn:
– What Divorce Coaching is
– How it works
– The benefits to clients (support, guidance, cost savings, better outcomes, etc.)
– The benefits to attorneys
– How To Pursue it
Don’t miss this vital podcast! You can call in live with questions or comments at 877-497-9046 at 8:30 PM EST or listen to the recording at your convenience at: www.BlogTalkRadio.com/SusanLager
One way or another, I hope you can tune in!
PS. If you’re on the fence about staying married and need help to make a confident decision about a direction for your marriage, you may be a candidate for Discernment Counseling. It’s a form of brief treatment designed for couples on the brink. I am the only clinician in New Hampshire certified to do this delicate work, and would be glad to discuss the possibility of setting up an initial appointment with you. Call my office voicemail at 603-431-7131 or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org