If you’ve been noticing lately that you and/or your partner are more irritable, short-tempered, impatient, critical, withdrawn, emotional, anxiety-ridden, depressed, or perhaps, ALL of the above, keep these three words in mind: YOU’RE NOT ALONE. There’s something going around these days that is affecting all of us in very significant ways. And no, we’re not talking about the COVID-19, virus but we are alluding to something that is directly related to that condition.
When we (that is “humans”) find ourselves experiencing levels of threat, uncertainty, unfamiliarity, or danger that we perceive as overwhelming our ability to adequately manage things, we mobilize our inner resources in order to meet the new situation. Doing so often requires us to borrow attention from other concerns that may now appear to be less urgent and necessary. Such a circumstance is commonly referred to as a “crisis”.
Crises calls for an “all hands on deck” response, requiring us to mobilize our inner resources to respond to the heightened demands of what may feel like or perhaps be, a life-threatening situation. In so doing, we diminish the capacities to meet other, now non-priority needs that normally get met under less stressful conditions. We find ourselves less patient, more easily agitated, more highly sensitive to criticism or disapproval, and less able to soothe or calm ourselves when distressed.
In circumstances when one partner in a relationship is experiencing extreme stress, this can be a difficult, but manageable situation. When both partners are experiencing a heightened level of distress, it can feel like effective crisis management is beyond the realm of possibility. But fear doesn’t necessarily translate into inevitability.
Anxiety can be contagious especially when it occurs in the context of an intimate partnership. Consequently, even in situations in which one person is more agitated than the other, it’s likely that those feelings will be felt by the other. In very close relationships there is a sympathetic resonance that exists between both partners. This can result in a more highly agitated person being the dominant influence or with the less anxious person being the dominant influence. If one person can soothe themselves, there will be a greater possibility of defusing the tension or behavior that exists between them.
When distressful emotions are intense, there is often a strong tendency to seek out a possible cause for them, out of the belief that finding the source of distress will bring about a relief of it. All too often, it can appear that another person (often the person with whom I am currently relating) has made me feel upset by something that they did or said. This conclusion will likely lead me to try to get them to do something different in the hopes that if they do, my distress will go away. When both partners in a relationship are relating to each other from this perspective, the outcome is likely to be an unhappy one for them both.
The challenge when we find ourselves caught in this conundrum is to redirect our attention away from the other person and ask ourselves what it is that we can do to regulate our own nervous system. If you have difficulty finding answers to that question, here is a starter kit that you might find helpful:
- Acknowledge that you are in an agitated state. This may sound ridiculously obvious but making ourselves consciously aware of what we are experiencing can bring a deeper level of acceptance into our experience. And acceptance is the first step in the process.
- Share that realization with the person with whom you are currently relating. It could be something as simple as: “I’m triggered/upset/ activated/ frightened/overwhelmed or whatever term you feel would characterize your current state of being.
- Let your partner know what it is that they could do that might help you to feel less upset, such as: “It would be helpful if you could just let me express what I’m feeling so that I could get it off of my chest” or “I don’t really need you to give me advice or try to fix me, just listen and let me unload my feelings.” Or “I feel really frustrated with my inability to get clear about things and I could use some reassurance that you’re not running out of patience with me.”
- If you do want some advice, ask for it, but be sure to make it clear that there is no guarantee that you will agree to accept and act on the advice you are given.
- Speaking more in terms of your experience, needs, feelings and concerns rather than focusing on what you believe the other person has done to make you feel the way you do, will result in them feeling less judged or blamed and they will be likely to feel more open and receptive towards you.
Once you establish a context of safety, vulnerability, acceptance, and non-defensiveness, you can get into the specifics of each of your underlying concerns and needs. Jumping into the content of your concerns prematurely, that is before a safe and trusting context is established may derail your exchange before it even gets started.
The conditions that will promote a beneficial context for the conversation include:
The promotion of feelings of mutual safety and trust, respect, non-judgment, patience, privacy, no external distractions (phones, radio, tv, children, and other people), full attentiveness to each other, and sensitive honesty, rather than brutal honesty.
Our “new normal” calls for us to hold higher standards of these and other qualities because the circumstances are so much more extreme than what we have previously been used to. We need to cut ourselves and each other some slack because our emotional bandwidth is more limited than it used to be.
Communicating from a spirit of goodwill, rather than one of judgment, can be more important than the actual content of what we say. Keep in mind that because of the uniqueness of our current circumstances, we are all more limited in our emotional reserves than we are in so-called “ordinary times.” Try to keep in mind that we are all doing the best we can under extraordinary conditions.
Responsible self-care is probably the best thing that we can do to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. Remember that taking good care of yourself, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually particularly during challenging times isn’t selfish, it’s an example of “enlightened self-interest”, and is in everyone’s best interest. No exceptions!