“All I need is a little attention,” cried Carol. “Is that so hard?” Instead of the warmth and caring she wanted to see in Kevin’s face, she just saw a sort of blank look. It made her feel panicky. Was she dealing with this all alone?
Carol’s mother was in a nursing home recovering from a fall. Thank goodness she didn’t break a hip, always the big fear, but still it was a wake up call. It was time to do what they all had been avoiding: arrange a safer living situation for her.
We all know the kind of feeling that is. You’re dealing with more than your share. You really need a look of understanding, a word of support, a hug, ANYTHING that reassures you your spouse is right there beside you.
When you don’t get it, it’s really easy to go to the dark side: “He just doesn’t care.”
Was Carol right? Was Kevin really just checked out?
I started out by telling Carol and Kevin that it’s really difficult for most people to know exactly what another person is feeling.
And if you do, it’s even harder to know why. So your first step is to accept your limitations as a mind reader and ask some questions.
The truth was, Kevin was tapped out, too. After 24 years of marriage, he was almost as close to his mother-in-law as Carol was. He, too, was heartbroken at the prospect of telling her she couldn’t go home. He, too, had been spending hours at the nursing home, researching alternatives and crunching numbers.
Welcome to the world of a couple dealing with a crisis.
Both people are in need of extra TLC. But both are also drained and exhausted. So where’s the support supposed to come from?
You can’t get water from a stone. Demanding more from a person who’s running on empty will go nowhere. Instead, focus like a laser on conserving your energy.
Take care of the basics.
Start with good food, with lots of protein and whole grains. No stretching out the time between meals because you’re “too busy.” Going hungry is one of the worst things you can do for anxiety.
Then, go on to regular exercise. When you’re dealing with a crisis, your system is in continual low-level fight or flight. If you get physical, you’re doing what your body is meant to do, and both your body and your mind will relax.
You might be too tired (and time-starved) to exercise as hard as you usually do. But I bet you can work in a 20-minute walk here and there. A lot of people find cutting back on intensity but increasing the frequency works well to help them feel more grounded.
Learn to “empathize efficiently.”
You both need to talk the problem. But you both also need to not talk about the problem. It’s easy to just drift into endless processing when you’re together. You need to vent, but open-ended processing will wear you down.
Not only that, but if all you talk about is the problem, your partner starts to become a constant reminder of the problem. Carol and Kevin were finding that they had to get away from each other, and the stress they saw in each other’s eyes, in order to really relax.
Yes, you probably do need to take breaks from each other, but you also want to be able to refresh together.
So, learn to check your gut and know when you’ve got the shot of empathy you need, and you can move on. And beware of making the problem your default topic when nothing else is going on.
Notice which activities give you energy and which ones steal your energy.
Your anxiety can drive you to run like a hamster on a wheel, even when you’re not really accomplishing anything. It may not feel like it, but even in the middle of a crisis, you probably have at least a little bit of control over your time.
For example, you might find it’s better for you to let the house go a little and get out and have a little fun. Maybe a walk with a friend is more important than a freshly vacuumed rug.
On the other hand, maybe you’re the person who feels centered by doing housework. For Kevin, there’s no therapy like gardening. Even 20 minutes of being out in the yard can take his blood pressure down.
When Carol and Kevin started attending to their energy, they felt a little more of their resilience come back.
Carol realized she had been feeling like it was her against the world. Which made her feel on-edge and defensive toward Kevin. “Now it’s more like us against the world,” she said, laughing.
When you notice your sense of humor returning, you know really you’re making some headway.
By Claire Hatch