When a natural disaster hits, there is anxiety, and traumatic loss but such events have a clear beginning and end. Natural disasters are devastating but there are few unknowns. With the collective loss, there is often collective care and support. In the aftermath of a hurricane that destroys and our neighbor’s home, we run to help him rebuild.
In the face of epidemics we lock our doors. Threatened by contagion, terrified by unknown risks, we move into fear-based survival mode. We isolate. We ruminate. We become saturated with media warnings and shaken by shards of frightening information and even conspiracy theories.
The recent media attention to domestic Violence in the NFL epitomized by the September 8th video of Baltimore Ravens, Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an elevator and Commissioner Goddell’s delayed reaction, bring to the forefront the reality of domestic violence and the factors that fuel it.
Football players are not the only men who succumb to domestic violence and they are not the only ones whose behavior is covered and condoned by silence.
While almost everyone working with couples and every self-help book underscores communication as central to any good relationship, there are times when the last thing that brings a couple together is “ talking.”
If you have ever said or heard someone say “ We Need to Talk,” you know that those words rarely invite closeness, valuable communication or good memories!
The reality is that communication between couples is complex and involves much more than talking–particularly when talking is on demand, without attention to the cues of the other and without the on-going life experiences that tell partners about each other in spoken and unspoken ways.
There is often more mutual understanding that comes from spontaneous sharing in the midst of living—than rehashing issues in the well caricatured “ Woody Allen Style.”
Here are some suggestions for those times when alternatives to talking may be worth considering:
After a Cease-Fire–Re-set the Relationship
The period of time in which there is a cease-fire after an argument is not the best time to talk.
Yes, there may be more to say…
Yes, You may feel you have the ability to just clarify…
But, the most effective thing you can do is to re-set the relationship with an experience of your positive connection as a platform for going forward.
“Do you want to get something to eat?”
“Do you want to see the next episode of that series?”
When Sharing Time Together–Use Affection
I have often had partners complain to me that when sharing time with their spouse or partner the other “ doesn’t talk.”
They, of course, are tired of making conversation and often complain to the other “ You never talk.” This …
To err is human; to forgive, divine. (Alexander Pope)
An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind. (Kahil Gibran)
While many reasons are ingrained in our moral fiber and cultural roots, a more recent one has been the finding that forgiveness changes our emotional state and as such our physical well-being. Forgiving is a way to stay healthy.
Evolutionary theory, gender differences, stereotype, media myth and cultural expectations invite us to recognize that men have more sexual desire than women both in frequency and intensity, are wired to have many partners, have more difficulty with monogamy and that as such, married men are more likely to have affairs than married women. The reality is that while married men have more affairs than married women –The difference is not that great.
The other reality is that while extra-marital affairs by definition involve a romantic and emotional relationship that has a sexual or sexualized component, research suggests that sexual drive is not the primary reason married men have affairs.
Anyone is a relationship knows that partners have the uncanny ability to bring out the best and worst in each other. Accordingly, whether newly married or celebrating many years together, partners can find themselves overreacting in a way that rarely happens anywhere else in their lives.
Most couples know the positive sounds of silence–the mutual experience of sharing time and space together without needing words. Be it walking the dog together, cooking side by side or listening to music–it is the silence of connection and love.
Many couples also know the silence that reflects tension, conflict or disconnection. Unable to speak beyond the necessities of daily life, these couples report, “ We just don’t talk anymore!”
If we recognize “ talking together” as a metaphor for the communication of confidantes, the special interest of partners and the pillow talk of intimates, then we understand that this is a silence that can start to feel emotionally deafening.
Why do couples who once had so much to say end up feeling this way? Is it inevitable as time passes in a marriage? Is there a way back?
Years together need not result in negative sounds of silence.
Yes, events can disrupt harmony and patterns can erode vitality, but if couples are curious rather than blameful about the silence between them, they may find some reasons and remedies to speak together again.
If we look closer at those partners who end up sitting in a restaurant with nothing to say, painfully aware of the couples happily chatting around them, we find that partners are often unaware of what they may be doing or what has happened to shut down the verbal connection.
Here are some possibilities:
You read my emails?
I can’t report every move I make in the course of a day.
Why can’t I check out my high school girlfriend on Facebook?
When it comes to relationships, partners often underestimate the importance of privacy and the danger of secrecy.
Privacy in relationships reflects trust and enhances intimacy. Secrecy in relationships impairs trust and impedes intimacy.
What is Privacy?
Privacy is defined as the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people. It is the state of being free from public exposure and attention.
Why We Need Privacy As Individuals
Psychologically, we understand that whereas secure attachment is key to early development, the growing capacity of the child to internalize this attachment and to separate–to have room to be, to play alone, to have private thoughts, to have space, to develop an authentic self–is crucial.
Why We Need Privacy In Relationships
As adults we continue to need different degrees of privacy to re-charge, regulate stress and nurture a sense of self–be it a solitary hobby or reading the paper alone.
We also need intimacy. We need to be and share with another, to be known by them in a way that no one else knows us.
Boundary Changes in Relationships
As such, in committed and intimate relationship, our individual boundaries of privacy change. In most cases, we choose to share bedrooms, sex, money, food, pets, chores, vacations, confidences, fears, and hardships– the best and worst of ourselves–with another. We also share a respect for each other’s privacy.
Disclosure Expectations in Relationships
While one partner may be more disclosing than the other, we can’t expect to hear or share every thought, action, urge or memory of our partner. In a trusting relationship, we have neither the need to check each other’s phone, emails, mail or daily moves, nor the obligation to disclose all. If we enjoy such sharing, it is mutual sharing that fuels our connection.
When thinking about privacy in a relationship it is worth considering:
“Is Anyone Else Angry?”
Trauma theorists tell us that while traumatic events are in themselves physically and emotionally assaultive, it is often the emotions suffered after the smoke clears and the media goes home that become painful and disruptive to our recovery. One of these is anger.
Anger in the aftermath of a traumatic event, be it the loss of a child, the destruction of one’s home, a life-threatening diagnosis or the sequel to combat stress is a common and complex response. It can be experienced as a physiological state, an emotion, a way of thinking, a behavioral response or a combination of these.
Understanding some of the feelings and dynamics that underscore anger after trauma may be an important step in your journey forward.
Anger as Residual of Fight/Flight Response
It is to our advantage that our biological arousal system goes into survivor mode in face of danger causing an increase in heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, cold sweats, tingling muscular tension and often-antagonistic behavior.
The problem is that when the danger has passed, our body often remains in a state of hyperarousal, leaving us reacting with anger to what would ordinarily be mildly distressing stimuli.
Because this is a physically driven anger, we need to work from the body out to bring it down. We need to re-set our body rhythms by moving, sleeping and eating well. Moving in any way (exercise, walking, re-building, cleaning, physically helping friends) is crucial.
One widow, who told me she was mad at God after 9/11, started walking and didn’t stop until the tears and …
Perhaps even more difficult than the realization that a marriage is ending, is the realization that the children must be told.
Regardless of how different a couple’s views may be on what did or didn’t happen in their marriage, most agree that the children need to be spared as much disruption and distress as possible.
Accordingly, most will follow the recommendations of experts to tell the children together in words suitable to their comprehension level–that Mom and Dad will be separating; that they are loved by both Mom and Dad; that they are not to blame; that sometimes Moms and Dads realize that they are no longer happy together; that some things will change but lots of things will stay the same; that Mom and Dad will still be there for them; that everyone will try to talk about changes so that everyone can feel ok….
Since there are no perfect words to make the loss of the familiar family context sound great to a child, adolescent or young adult, it is worth recognizing that “ telling the children” is only the start of an ongoing parenting process that needs to keep unfolding after the first sit-down takes place.
As you take on this parenting process, here are some considerations to keep in mind:
It’s Not Just What You Say—It’s What You Do.
Be prepared to be ignored, rebuffed or heartbroken by your child’s initial response. Much like adults who are told about something that will change their lives–the initial reactions of children may well be their best attempt to cope.
Being patient, voicing understanding, allowing time, validating feelings, or just being a compassionate presence (to a little one who goes off to play alone or a teen who needs a …