An article in today’s New York Times looks at the importance of a couple developing ways to “fight” – to share vital, sensitive information & opinions, data & emotions – without it becoming Armageddon. From my own experience, I can say without hesitation that what’s true for marriage is true for all relationships, especially true for one of the most sensitive of all – between olders & youngers, the dependent & care partners.
All the issues that loom large in a marriage do so – even more so – between older people & the people providing life support, between people who need extra help & those who provide it. How adept they are at saying difficult things that need to be said will be perhaps THE #1 factor in determining how well their particular dynamic functions.
The #1 factor in how well Mom & I functioned in her final four years was rooted in her being able to hear difficult things that needed saying, something she’d resisted with all her being all the years before.
The #1 thing that drove me wild in our family was a core inability of my parents – more Mom than Dad – and my sibs to hearing difficult things. Much better to slap on a smiley face! And the one person who seemed capable turned out to be all hat & no cattle!
John & I were blessed to be a) fairly ancient when we married (43 & 37) -and- b) both of us spent those years observing relationships, seeing what seemed to work & what struck us as disastrous. We brought those findings to our relationship, along with a surprising openness. As John said midway through meeting & marrying – “I can tell you ANYTHING!”
To swipe a line from George of the Jungle, John & Deev just lucky, I guess.
Reading the NY Times article, it hit me that our expectation of being able to share difficult information in a safe enviroment has served us well in beyond our relationship, in working with older friends & their families.
It never occurred to me before, but I can think of at least four older friends who changed – in their 80s & 90s! – because of my ability to openly share difficult info. Three of them – clients – started to be more polite to others, including family, saying “Thank you” & expressing gratitude instead of acting entitled. All because of going out to meals & pointing out, without slamming them, when they were rude to servers. It was as simple & as emotionally dangerous as setting boundaries.
Boundaries are beautiful. One big step toward reducing stress is to admit that it exists.
Relationships are tricky, whether it’s BFFs or workplace colleagues, new loves or old friends. But the biggest baddest of the bunch is, for most people, the relationship between parents & children, thanks to all the emotional baggage & land mines. How well we acknowledge & address touchy subjects in as safe a way as possible will help determine how well the relationship plays out – a lot of people who do ace this within a marriage fall to pieces as parent-child.
“As safe a way as possible.” Some people will never feel safe looking things in the face. That does not mean staying silent, sweeping tough topics under the carpet. It means presenting the information in as safe a way as possible. Because while opening up might create a whirlwind of emotional distress, the damage created from burying it will be far worse. Not with everything. With the truly important. Which means being about to pick & choose, to discern which need airing & which can lay low. It takes good sound judgement, a caring heart & a emotional flexibility. It ain’t easy.
The article brings up MONEY. Money is a big issue as we edge farther from fifty & closer to 100. I’ve known parents who refuse to discuss finances with their children & children who rode roughshod over their elderly parents.
I was blessed. We took John’s “I can tell you anything!” attitude into our discussions around money, into our relationship with Mom. We helped her feel emotionally safe being open about dicey topics. That took a lot of work on her part; her experience with her children was just the opposite & continued to be to literally her dying days. Mom had to overcome unimaginably strong resistance to become open to herself & others.
It didn’t just happen by accident. John & I actively partnered with Mom, included her in discussions on predictable challenges, present-moment high points & nail biters, our fiscal fitness. The three of us developed what the article calls a “we story” – – an awareness of how our values & goals align, how do they diverge. Boy, do they diverge a lot, but all are still part of our “we story,” part of what made/makes US.
Wasn’t easy. There were times that my mother & I seemed to be impossibly far apart, but as we kept working to get to a better place, that distance got smaller & smaller until it became manageable. Our goal wasn’t 100% bliss, but 100% loving effort.
For me, the hardest hitting part of the article is “But if couples are going to collaborate, they have to figure out how to have a productive conversation. A conversation — as opposed to parallel monologues — involves two people who are making an effort to understand each other. In the grip of strong emotion, productive conversation can be surprisingly hard.” True for couples, true for older/younger dynamics.
Tips given in the article for married partners ring as true for parent/child, for any relationship at any level:
- Ask “Is this a good time to talk?”
- Strike a balance between empathy and problem-solving
- If the other is an avoider, keep making efforts to connect.
- If s/he is a highly emotional, keep your cool, rooted in compassion -and- firmly on topic
- In the short run, know what you want to accomplish in the back & forth (and make sure it is) -and- stay on task
- Come up with how you’re going to address touchy issues – when processes are in place (for years, our car had a note – to me – “Confrontation-free Zone” & we never talked about hot topics on walks), it’s easier to deal with the messy stuff.
A word about avoiders & emoters – – don’t let them determine how the discussion goes. Decades ago, I reached out to a friend, a successful businessman, for tips on how to handle an important conversation that was coming up with my oldest brother, one that Peter did not want to have. Jay advised me, “Know the message you want him to take away & stay on topic. Whatever he says, just bring it back to the topic. Stay on topic.” His advice continues to prove priceless. Oh, and don’t BE an avoider or emoter!
What the article says about what defines the best marriages is true across the board for all relationships – – “the best… involve people who can deal with strong negative emotions — and who are cleareyed about how hard it can be.” Amen & hallelujah!
Am going to brazenly albeit mildly tweak one portion: What will matter most in relationships is what’s possible on the other side of it’s first blush: conversations that are rewarding, intimate and real. It’s not that we come together in electric recognition and pure understanding, then fall away from that through conflict. Rather, we come together in a rush of passion, then we achieve love through continuing conversation. Through that conversation we cultivate the essential emotional attitude – each giving their best to understand what the other things & feels, without it taking away from their own experience. The one reality doesn’t negate the other.
Here’s another spot-on observation – A sense of emotional emergency almost always means it’s time to slow down. Emotions are often inconvenient. Emotions are priceless triggers alerting us that something needs attention. Emotional emergencies scream out for us to pause, regroup, reconsider. To be inconvenienced in the cause of something bigger than individuals.
What most people seek from any/all relationships is, in the end, a good friend. It is an adage of commerce that people want to do business with a friend. From workplace buddies & forever sidekicks to our circle of besties & the guys at the gym, we like to find in each a friend. That’s most challenging daunting exasperating in marriage & in family relationship. The most arrrgggghhhhhh, the most rewarding.