Archive for conflicts

Autumnal Change and Uncertainty

Let’s start with the premise that change is usually unsettling. The human brain is generally not programmed to thrive on risk, so habits and learned ways of thinking can be a source of comfort in our daily lives.

The wise American philosopher William James stated that;

‘A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices’

This was written at the turn of the 19th century but could easily stand today as a shining observation of the overloaded list of social and political dilemmas in this strangely unsettling autumn of 2019.

It’s rare in my counselling room for world or national events to be a focus. Clients come for a variety of reasons,  usually needing a safe space to reflect on the issues that affect their own personal situations. Seldom do outside forces seem important enough to invade their personal session time.

During these last weeks, fear and external conflicts have caused disruption to so many of them and has now become a subject in itself that has impacted the lives of most of us in some way.

Theoretically,  we may try to understand that change is a crucial component of growth and evolution, but we also need to trust those who appear to be in control.

Without certainty, rumour, speculation and assumptions will thrive and leave us feeling understandably threatened.

It is inevitable that, at some point, we shall all experience change in our everyday existence.

Births, deaths, divorce, redundancy and separation are among the huge life events that mean major re-evaluation and adjustment, and these are often the presenting problems that bring clients to therapy.

All change will bring loss – even the most joyful shifts in our lives. Some of the more difficult personal events will feel shocking and unexpected, leading to anger and disorientation.

The current situation in the UK is now bringing up emotions described as nameless dread, fear and helplessness leading to real anxiety around the future, as clients contemplate their own experiences and then make links with the wider social and political situation that has overshadowed us all in recent months and left many feeling dispossessed and scared – both for themselves and those they care about.

This kind of enforced change can shift perspectives for us all and will alter our emotional landscape.

In our personal lives, tumultuous situations such as bereavement, health issues and job losses are always going to bring grief and fear. But compounded with the tenuous social and political  situation, many of us are feeling the chill of uncertainty and a range of complex apprehensions.

Therapy can’t change what’s happening in the moment, but talking feelings through with an impartial, empathetic listener in a place of comfort and safety can be extremely helpful for clients.

Adjustment to the altered state of our lives is a process that is helped by self-care and kindness.

Sometimes feelings of helplessness and frustration are exacerbated by the way they revive emotions that were experienced much earlier in our lives, bringing anxieties into sharp focus and making current responses even more vivid and upsetting.

Acceptance of a new state doesn’t mean forgetting what went before, but needs the ability to leave behind what we knew as normal and find a shift to our new normal.

Which again brings me – reluctantly – to the present state of our country. We all share this huge void of uncertainty even though we may be looking at it from different viewpoints.

Change can be exciting if it forces us to grow and look at things from a new and different viewpoint. It can teach us to be flexible and can challenge long-held beliefs leading to creativity and can help us develop new strengths leading to a boost in our self-esteem and strengthening our resilience.

As humans we need to accept that society has to develop and evolve. But change that feels forced upon us all and seems to benefit only some at the expense of many, can feel unjust and leads to the anger that comes from experiencing unfairness and the imposition of ideas that may conflict sharply with our own beliefs.

As the clocks go back leaving summer behind, let’s hope the autumn of 2019 is not remembered as a dark and gloomy place, but the start of a new opportunity for some beginnings of hope and reconnection.

We can’t change the past, so rather than regret what may have been lost, the way to feel more in control is to look at whatever we now can do to repair those past hurts and let’s now give an optimistic nod to the future.

As the great Sam Cooke wrote;

There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long

But now I think I’m able to carry on

It’s been a long, a long time coming

But I know a change is gonna come,

Oh yes it will.

Christina Fraser

Stress and the Couple

Two news items caught my attention this week: how stress impacts relationships and whether there is a stress gender divide.

The first is new research released for National Stress Awareness Day on 1 November 2017 shows that many more women than men are feeling stressed and anxious.

Data showed that more than half of women (54%) experiencing stress or anxiety are struggling to sleep – while less than 4 in 10 men do (39%)

More than half eat junk food due to stress compared to a third of men

Nearly half (45%) have taken out their stress on partners or family – in contrast to less than a third of men (31%)
Almost a third (29%)have had panic attacks due to stress compared to less than one in in five of men (31%)

Do women juggle with more caring and parenting responsibilities which need to be juggled with their careers?

The second is the BBC 2 programme Trust me I’m a Doctor Mental Health Special who were testing out some of the claims that can help to reduce stress of which only some are supported by scientific evidence.

Working with couples it is becoming more evident how big a part stress can play between partners and how difficult it is to stay connected amid the difficulties.

When conflicts arise, it’s much easier to blame our partners –how could you have done that? Why didn’t you empty the dishwasher? You never ask me about my day.

These are all everyday examples of annoyances, disappointments and criticisms that can easily lead to the blame game with our partners. It seems simpler to focus on these negative interactions than to consider how much stress may be a major contribution. Do we even realise how much stress can be the cause of our relationship distress?

Many couples continually juggle with busy work schedules and parenthood and run a hectic lifestyle. This can be difficult enough. Throw into the mix lack of sleep, financial worries, illness and family issues – it’s not difficult to appreciate stress’s constant presence in our lives.

How does stress affect a relationship?

When a stressed partner does not get the support they need from their partners, this often leads to feeling isolated and ignored in the relationship and the tendency is to withdraw or fight. If we confront our partner for not supporting us, they often feel misunderstood – not even realising their own behaviours.

Even if we aren’t stressed ourselves, we are often not very responsive or miss the opportunity to provide comfort and help to our partners. We often don’t want to admit to ourselves that everything and everyone is making you irritable.

If both partners are overwhelmed with stress at the same time, which often happens, the situation worsens. We use each other to vent and take it out on our partners by picking fights over little things and being overtly critical. This often becomes a competition for who is not cared about the most.

How to stay connected under stress

Some partners chose to keep stress to themselves in order to protect a partner. Other partners chose to off-load at every opportunity making it difficult to find any relief. Neither way is ideal. Use this situation as an ideal opportunity to connect with your partner and really try to understand what they need in the way of support from you right know and how to give it. It may be as simple as practical hands-on assistance or it may include more physical comfort and emotional reassurance.

Learn to be more aware of just how much stress your partner may be experiencing. Don’t just look at the negative behaviour but try and understand together what might be going on below the surface.

At times we presume our partners should know when we are stressed and get reactive when they don’t respond in the way we want them to. Perhaps the answer to this is to ask for help when it is needed in a way that will get the response you need from your partner.

Take time out to support your partners stress head on. By sitting down together, taking time out to listen and offer comfort and understanding rather than focusing on yourself are not only key factors in managing stress but show our partners in those important moments that we are truly there for them side by side no matter what.

Stress doesn’t need to threaten our connection to our partners, it can bring us closer together when our stress hormones activate our brains systems to respond with compassion, love and cooperation.

Dawn Kaffel

Siblings at War

Sibling Rivaly. It can all sound a bit Freudian and irrelevant within modern couple difficulties.
But remember, this is where most of us start to investigate our relationship powers.
The first group most people encounter is within our original family and each new child hopes for the starring role. However, the disappointments of displacement can come all too fast as another, rival baby enters the home.
Sometimes there is already a co-star in the shape of a demanding toddler born before us who will be fighting for autonomy. Each child struggles for top billing – with their parents as audience.
As a beloved new baby, getting toppled from that important pedestal means that you are no longer getting all that precious attention, so sibling rivalry can be bitter. And for most children any displacement will feel too early.
As relationship therapists, we see this often. Many couples will mirror each other with similar positions in their early family structure.  When people’s feelings run high, the bickering can degenerate into playground style squabbling. Each trying to show who is the most hard done by, and the most wronged partner.
Conflicts like this often cover up the real issue which is fear. Couples can disagree on fundamental issues but the scary things is to trust that a partner will still love and respect us and our views even if they aren’t shared. Therapy can provide that safe space to reflect and really listen to a partner. We don’t have to agree with all their ideas and beliefs, but we do need to listen and better understand each other.
Sibling rivalry is based on injustice – real or imagined. Most of us struggle for feelings of fairness in couple relationships. If the other thinks we are wrong they are inferring we must be to blame. So we retaliate, insisting that they are wrong and so it goes. Except that sometimes nobody holds the golden ticket. Things can just be different for each of us.
When filled with frustration and rage, try to imagine where you may have experienced a similar struggle back in childhood. That’s often where it all begins.
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. That brother or sister knows where all the skeletons lie within the family cupboard and can be a close ally as time goes on.
They know you well, and that can be a scary thing. But they can also be a deep support for life.

Christina Fraser