I have to confess that I have snapped at my husband once or ten times in the last week. Even my kids have been on the receiving end of my stress. Though my house remained dry through this horrendous flood, watching the water rise within inches of my house has caused permanent nerve damage I feel sure. I am not an anxious person but when water rose by the foot over night, I experienced panic. What will we do if it floods? How will we get out? How will we get food? Supplies? Is the water ok to drink? Then the power went out. We scrambled for flashlights and played cards by the light of a lantern. After daylight my husband was able to kayak out of our neighborhood and scavenge for gas-station food. It was eerie. Grocery stores were closed, flooded or had a 2 hour wait to get in only to find empty shelves. We were eating power bars, cashews and crackers. In other words, we were experiencing intense stress. Our nervous systems had kicked into fight or flight and we were in survival mode. This is a great feature of the human body but it is not sustainable forever.
Relationships thrive under the absence of stress. Have you ever noticed how well you get along on vacation and are reminded of how much you enjoy your partner? Then the moment you get back home the old resentments creep back in? Life is stressful, even though much of it is positive stress like busy jobs, children and running our lives. I am already beginning to see the impact of Hurricane Harvey on the relationships of friends and clients. While we are at our most exhausted, anxiety can reach new heights, precisely when huge decisions must be made.
Do we try to get back into our house today to retrieve belongings? Is it safe? Did we purchase flood insurance? Where will we live? Is everything for rent gone already? How do I navigate the mountain of paperwork required to try and get the funds necessary for rent, demolition, mold remediation, a new car and the list goes on. Our higher-level thinking has been hijacked by our survival instinct and forming clear thoughts feels impossible. Anxiety is now in the driver’s seat and is not letting go of the wheel.
The problem for our relationships is that each of us reacts to anxiety differently and copes differently. What makes your partner feel relieved or more secure may make your own anxious thoughts and feelings skyrocket.
He wants to move in with his parents who are half an hour away – rent free. This calms his “provider panic” and fear of what this means for the family’s financial security. She is desperately seeking the comfort of a nest to call her own near her friend group and living with her mother-in-law sounds unbearable. Especially for a stay at home mother. Her need for privacy costs money which spikes his anxiety and his need to save every penny makes her feel trapped. It is easy to see how quickly this could turn into accusations of being selfish. To ensure this catastrophic event makes you better and not bitter, I’ve created some clear rules to follow.
Rule number 1: Remember that what makes you feel better may make your partner feel worse. You cannot manage your own anxiety at the expense of your partner. This is a recipe for resentment.
Rule 2: Make your needs, wants, feelings and priorities EQUAL to those of your partner. Not more and not less. Equal.
Rule 3: The goal should be to find middle ground that brings a sense of peace to you both. This can only be reached through skillful communication designed to validate the fears of your partner while helping your partner understand your own fears.
Rule 4: Come to terms with the fact that what you are feeling right now is anxiety. It is not a sign of weakness, it’s a normal human reaction to threat. Anxiety is a functional reaction that provides us with the energy, motivation and strength to survive. It is your friend.
Rule 5: Make fear the common enemy – not your spouse. Recognize that fear is behind the wheel steering your thoughts, feelings and behaviors in what may be unconstructive ways. Rather than criticizing your partner or accusing them of being selfish or unreasonable – help alleviate the fear and offer comfort. Hugs are recommended.
Rule 6: Be extra tolerant of your partner’s mood swings or irritability. And if you lash out, don’t expect you partner to “get over it”, offer a humble apology. These two things are key to relationship survival. What predicts divorce is not fighting, its failing to repair the damage done during a disagreement that correlates with relationship failure. Apologies are not optional.
After the last 10 days, I feel closer to my husband than ever. This is not an accident. This is a result of following the rules above. And as always, when you get stuck, seek professional help. Marriage Therapists have the tools you need to get unstuck.
(pictured is my husband wearing waders, pulling me in his kayak, now nicknamed The Redneck Gondola)