by Brian Parsons
So far so good on one of my resolutions for 2017: Take time daily to relax with a book—a minimum of 15 minutes. This has proven to be a difficult challenge at times in the past. Not only do I tend to short-change myself on things important to my mental health, but there are periods when the activity of reading I usually enjoy is impossible. I stare at the same page of the open book in my lap unable to focus my attention and concentrate. Over the holidays, I found my way back to the art of reading—and discovered that like most things it takes practice and persistence to master. During two blissful days in pyjamas, I made my way to the end of three books I had given up on months earlier and started on a new novel. One of the books is a self-help title that especially speaks to me as a caregiver: The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and Nan Silver. Although the focus is on marriages, the messages and lessons apply equally to all relationships with loved ones. A basic premise of the authors is that all conflicts in a relationship fall into one of two categories: Either they can be resolved, or they are perpetual—in some form or another they will always be present. When we learn to recognize the difference between the types of conflicts, we can better tailor our coping strategies and better manage ourselves and our relationships with our loved ones. Principle #5 of Gottman and Silver: Solve your solvable problems. Duh! Makes so much sense.
And here are the recommended steps to follow:
- Soften your startup. Keep in mind that a discussion invariably ends on the same note it begins. If you start harshly and on the attack, odds are you will end up with at least the same degree of tension as when you began. It’s okay to complain if you have some suggestions on possible options, but it’s not okay to criticize or blame if you have no alternatives to offer.
- Learn to make—and receive—repair attempts. De-escalation of tension is a vital skill. Your ability to apply the brakes and shift gears is as important in your relationship with your loved one as it is when you drive a car. When things get off on the wrong foot, you can prevent a disaster if you know how to stop and change direction. Acknowledge likewise the efforts of your loved one to mend and maintain the bond between you.
- Soothe yourself and each other. All too often “flooding” becomes a problem: You are overwhelmed by your loved one and your loved one is overwhelmed by you. Pace yourself and take a break when you sense your emotional dam is about to be breeched. Establish and practise time-out signals with your loved one so you both can feel you are in control and can stay under control. Ask yourself, “Does this really have to be settled right now?” Find ways to ease tension at those critical moments—each of you on your own or both of you together.
- Compromise. This step I find especially difficult: As the caregiver, I feel I am supposed to be the one with all of the answers. Slowly but surely, though, I am learning—more being instructed!—to try not to be such “a righteous know-it-all.” Often it is your loved one who has “the better idea” and simply needs your support and patience to be able to express it. Pay close attention and listen carefully: Your loved one “makes sense”— however differently you may feel. Find something on which you can agree and go with it—all the way. Set aside contentious details for another time. Most important: Remember that the key to successful compromise is to accept the influence of your loved one. Show your loved one how you can be helped to greater understanding. Empower your loved one and allow your loved one to empower you. To recharge your skills of compromise, every once in a while take on an issue with your loved one that has nothing to do with your relationship.
- Be tolerant of each other’s faults and shortcomings. Another very challenging step: I can be tolerant of the limitations of my loved one. But can I be tolerant of my own personal limitations? I can accept that I have limitations, but how can I possibly “afford” them when it involves my loved one? Your role as caregiver does not include being saviour— “superhero” is not part of the job description. Be as tolerant of yourself as you are of your loved one. To close on a principle with which I find comfort and try to follow: It’s all about the ongoing process of life, not about the short-term results of a single day.