During this time of quarantine, when couples and families unexpectedly find themselves together at home with no end in sight, stress impacts everyone differently depending on what you struggle with as an individual. With the change of pace, we can’t help but to have more time to think and feel without the usual distractions of work, school, errands, and meet-ups.
In working with clients and speaking with friends and family during these uncertain times, I find the topic of grief keeps popping up. We are all experiencing some sort of loss now, whether it is for the loss of plans we hoped to experience or the loss of control over the trajectory of our own lives. Many of us are also feeling homesick or nostalgic for a previous time or person in our life.
Just like loss and grief are experienced differently by each of us, stress also manifests itself differently. Some of us need to talk, some of us need to fight, some of us need to retreat, and some of us need to cry. The expressions of stress are endless.
So, how are we supposed to manage different coping styles when we’re all under the same roof?
The simple and easy answer is boundaries. During my work with couples and families over the past few decades, at some point in time, I provide them with the “Rules for Fair Fighting.”
Before you begin, ask yourself why you feel upset.
Are you truly angry because your partner left the mustard on the counter? Or are you upset because you feel like you’re doing an uneven share of the housework and this is just one more piece of evidence? Take the time to think about your own feelings before starting an argument.
Discuss one issue at a time.
“You shouldn’t be spending so much money without talking to me” can quickly turn into “You don’t care about our family”. Now you need to resolve two problems instead of one. Plus, when an argument starts to get off topic, it can easily become about everything a person has ever done wrong. We’ve all done a lot wrong, so this can be especially cumbersome.
No degrading language.
Discuss the issue, not the person. No put-downs, swearing, or name-calling. Degrading language is an attempt to express negative feelings while making sure your partner feels just as bad. This will just lead to more character attacks while the original issue is forgotten.
Express your feelings with words and take responsibility for them.
“I feel angry.” “I feel hurt when you ignore my phone calls.” “I feel scared when you yell.” These are good ways to express how you feel. Starting with “I” is a good technique to help you take responsibility for your feelings (no, you can’t say whatever you want as long as it starts with “I”).
Take turns talking.
This can be tough, but be careful not to interrupt. If this rule is difficult to follow, try setting a timer allowing one minute for each person to speak without interruption. Don’t spend your partner’s minute thinking about what you want to say. Listen!
Sometimes the easiest way to respond to an argument is to retreat into your shell and refuse to speak. This refusal to communicate is called stonewalling. You might feel better temporarily, but the original issue will remain unresolved and your partner will feel more upset. If you absolutely cannot go on, tell your partner you need to take a time-out. Agree to resume the discussion later.
Sometimes arguments are “won” by being the loudest, but the problem only gets worse.
Take a time-out if things get too heated.
In a perfect world we would all follow these rules one hundred percent of the time, but it just doesn’t work like that. If an argument starts to become personal or heated, take a time-out. Agree on a time to come back and discuss the problem after everyone has cooled down.
Attempt to come to a compromise or an understanding.
There isn’t always a perfect answer to an argument. Life is just too messy for that. Do your best to come to a compromise (this will mean some give and take from both sides). If you can’t come to a compromise, merely understanding can help soothe negative feelings.
While the “Rules for Fair Fighting” might seem pretty simple and straightforward, I have yet to meet a couple that responded with “Yes! We follow all these guidelines perfectly already.”
Our schools, parents, and friends do not provide us with “Rules for Fair Fighting.” Mostly, couples start out life together just winging it and hoping for the best. Once these “Rules” are presented most couples have a good laugh about how many they have broken.
Hopefully, reviewing these “Rules” or even putting the list on your refrigerator or in a common space can help you -- couples and families alike -- to create healthy boundaries and work better together during these unusual and uncertain times.