My mother is currently facing a serious illness, and I have a major role in helping her figure out her options.This has caused me to reflect on the ways having a good marriage seems to be helping me manage my own stress level. So I looked again at the research I did before writing Loving in Flow: How the Happiest Couples Get and Stay That Way.
In short, then, here's what happy, functional couples do when confronted by a crisis, including dealing with aging parents:
- They don't use denial often or for long. Denial can be a very temporary coping mechanism, a way to reduce stress for a little while. Beyond the short term, however, denial only leads to greater distress and possibly more complications. By facing up to problems early, effective couples may be able to reduce the fallout of some crises altogether. That doesn't mean they insist that their aging parents adopt or give up any particular coping mechanism, but that they themselves face reality as a couple.
- They don't universalize. That is, when bad things happen, they don't immediately jump to the worst case scenario, i.e., This whole mess is just too huge to deal with, we'll never get through it, we can't possibly figure this out and will screw everything up. Rather, they summon the relevant skills of resilience, do the research, find out what they can do, and take action toward the best possible solutions.
- They don't blame one another for happenings outside the control of either partner, and they don't let each other blame themselves uselessly. They talk about their feelings, including anger and disappointment, not allowing such emotions to take over their lives. They are supportive of one another when one or both are having an especially hard time, and they learn to be supportive in the ways the other most needs. They learn to get their own emotions out of the way without in any way invalidating the emotions of their more down-hearted mate.
- They are self-aware and flexible, understanding that bad days in their relationship don't last forever. Surprises, however unpleasant, don't throw them off kilter too much. They realize, on some level, that relationships (and families) are subject to chaos theory: they are systems continually going through change and turbulence, stabilizing and destabilizing cyclically. While they must focus on the most urgent needs of their parents, they take the time to comfort themselves however they can.
If you've been through this yourself, I'd love you to share your best advice with me and my readers.