MOST MARRIAGES GET STUCK ON ONLY HALF THE PROBLEM.

jelly beanWhen we were in school, most of us had to do “word problems” in math class.  Like this one:  Stan starts out for home,16 miles away, at noon on a hot day, carrying 39 jelly beans in his pocket. Within 5 miles of home he notices there are no jelly beans left, although Stan swears he hasn’t eaten any. How many miles has he travelled?

The first step in solving any problem is to figure out what’s really the problem.  There may be lots of information, some important and some not very.  Some information seems important but doesn’t apply to the question.

Or does it?

In relationships there are often two or more different views of what’s important:  jelly beans, distance, heat, Stan’s track record at telling the truth.  Lots of marriages get stuck when one is talking about Stan’s fondness for jelly beans and the other finds a solution in the day being hot.

In this scenario people are talking past each other; each interprets something different even within the same situation.

A husband might pass off Stan’s love for candy as no big deal, while his wife might see Stan’s behavior around candy as disgusting and weak-willed.

Soon it’s no longer about Stan.  Husband says wife is too uptight and judgmental.  She’s that way with the kids; never lets them have any fun and keeps them on a short leash.  Even does it to him.  Dragging their children and pets into this marital dust-up, husband declares that everyone is fed up!  The final shot is his suggestion, delivered in an ominously quiet voice, that even her mother agrees with him.

His wife is openly shocked, confused about how they went from Stan’s behavior to a personal attack on her.  She righteously challenges her husband’s values and parenting.  Somewhere she alludes to his sometimes wearing the same underwear for two days.  As for her mother’s opinion, well, that’s a whole other fight.

Neither partner is being heard nor hearing the other.  If you don’t see dark storm clouds you’re probably not married.

When it was legal to advertise cigarettes in the media, one brand’s tag line was “I’d rather fight than switch”.

Maybe fighting rather than switching is about appearances — smoking the most popular brand.  It’s possible defending your cigarette brand is like defending yourself; your inalienable right to protect your choice against all others’.  At a certain tipping point, not switching is inversely proportional to the quality of the smokes; said another way, the likelihood of fighting has more to do with ego than it does with fine tobacco.  Nevertheless, it’s hard to picture two dudes duking it out in the break room over smokes.

This same effect happens with couples.  Call it what you will — false pride, stubborness — It’s more likely that each partner feels threatened in some way; so much so that disagreement turns vociferous, personal, and mean.

Unhealthy communication within marriage guarantees an unhealthy marriage.  It’s what husbands and wives do when they aim to save position within the relationship, not in saving the relationship itself.  Sort of like ignoring the larger issue of smoking to argue about cigarette brands.

Before you know it, there’ll be fighting in the streets over jelly beans.

Kathe Skinner has been a Colorado Springs Marriage & Family Therapist for over 20 years with a private practice specializing in couples work.  She and her husband, David, are counting down the months to their 30th anniversary.

copyright 2016, Being Heard, LLC

MY FAMILY IS CRAZIER THAN YOURS.

 

cartoon t;givingIn the month between November 26 and December 25 something odd happens:  Crazy families get crazier.

Giving Thanks, Spreading Light, Celebrating Culture, and Wishing for Peace on Earth are often replaced by the dread and fear of family fireworks.

Few families really are incident-free, although we figure it’s just ours that’s as dysfunctional as it is. While it might seem more comfortable to exclude certain family members to avoid celebratory disruption, what actually happens may be disrupting as well.

The classic struggle between expectations of “the way it should be” vs. “the way it really is” sets us up to have unhealthy negative emotions like sadness, guilt, anger, dread, and avoidance.

Shake the sugar plums out of your head and re-think your guilt:

The Throwback Effect:  Traditions, celebrated the same every year may be a reminder of past hurts, inviting behaviors that go way back.  Fight the impulse to side with your family against your partner; keeping  communication open is crucial.  Not everyone is happy at the holidays; no one has to be.

The Hallmark Effect:  U.S. companies will spend billions and billions of dollars on advertising this season, primarily on social media and television, to sell consumers on the notion that a perfect holiday can be purchased.  Movies — another holiday “tradition” — portray traumatizing family events as either funny or touching.  The constant stream of warm and fuzzy can lead to a very real mental health plague called holiday depression.

3 Monkeys Effect:  Pretending that crazy behavior isn’t crazy only makes you look crazy.  Minimizing reality for the sake of others’ comfort makes everyone uncomfortable.  Being honest is appropriate, even though ’tis the season for pretending everything is as it should be.

Forewarned, Forearmed:    Chat with the potential offender beforehand. Say why you’d like them to join everyone else even as you set boundaries for acceptable behavior.  Here’s the important part:  Quietly stick to the boundaries you set.  If you won’t, the offensive behavior is bound to be repeated and you and your guests are bound to be disrespected — again.

Cut the Drama:  It’s not like you’re surprised so don’t act like it.  Being dramatic about something you expect perpetuates bad feelings between people, who are likely to take sides.  This is one way that horrible holidays have become part of your family’s tradition.

Handing out explosives:  Alcohol and stress are a bad combination.  Bad stress makes everything worse; alcohol makes crazy worse.  If you fuel trouble, it will come.  Monitor the flow of booze if you want to avoid a bad scene.

Change It Up:  Change the usual setting or location, menu, focus of the day or even the day itself.   Get away from a personal, claustrophobic focus in order to re-focus outward to community — friends, neighbors, even strangers.  Take turns hosting; share the day’s responsibilities (being sure to include children); organize a neighborhood carol-sing, skating party or sleigh ride; volunteer; stay home and forge your nuclear family’s traditions; go on a Christmas tree hunt; or choose an activity that centers on the holiday’s meaning, are all examples of refocusing.

Come Down Easy:   The time and money spent preparing for, and celebrating, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas is disproportional to the let-down felt when all that’s left is the mess. Remembering how that feels might be incentive to celebrate in other, less costly but more rewarding, ways.

Take a Nap.  The day will wear you out so come rested to it, especially if you have a disability or chronic illness.  Add a few minutes to steal away, catch your breath and renew your smile.

No other time of year is as fraught with “shoulds”.  As with much of what’s difficult in life — leaving certain people out in the cold at holiday time — is a hard choice to make.  It’s reasonable to feel guilt and sadness and to feel guilty and sad because you feel guilt and sadness.

What’s important is that you acknowledge the situation and your struggle with it.  You don’t have to do anything.  There’s always next year and the crazies are likely to happen again.

Kathe Skinner is a Marriage & Family therapist in Colorado Springs where she lives with her husband David and their two hooligan cats.

Cartoon © Donna Barstow, 2015 Used with Permission

© 2015 Being Head LLC