I've noticed a significant change in the past decade of clinical work with highly distressed couples. The majority of disputes that eventually lead to acrimony or abuse or even violence are no longer triggered by alcohol use or discussions of money, sex, raising the kids, or in-laws.
To be sure, at least one of these hot button issues eventually rears its head in the painful interactions of couples. But now it seems that the initial trigger of hurtful exchanges occurs in the transition time when one of the partners first arrives home from work. Something is said or not said, done or not done, which eventually results in a distress-laden night.This is in contrast to couples who disagree about those same issues but do not botch their initial interactions at the end of the work day. Those couples seem to have less emotional intensity and vitirol in their discussions.
There are, no doubt, many factors that make this time especially risky for families - traffic congestion, aggressive driving, stress, overwork, sleep-deprivation, and the fact that many people have trouble with transitions in general. Although empirical research on the subject seems to be lacking, my gut feeling is that a breakdown in boundaries between work and home-life plays a key role. My clients do not seem to notice the difference between socialization at work and home and, therefore, have no rituals to help with the transition.
Nowhere is the difference between work and home life more extreme than in the military. Of all the heartaches that come from working with abusive families, the most poignant are emotional abuse and domestic violence in military families, who endure special challenges and stresses in service to us all.
Work vs. Family
In military socialization, the service man or woman must accept the absolute hierarchy of the chain of command. Rank is worn on the uniform and highlighted by deferential gestures and utterances (salutes at attention, "Yes, Sir/M 'am"). Acceptance is wholly contingent on performance. In contrast, everyone in the family is equally important and valuable and equally worthy of respect and love. Growth, development, nurturing, compassion, love, safety, and security are valued over performance. Order/obey is replaced with negotiate/cooperate. There is no submission or implied coercion for failure to submit.
It is no easy task going back and forth between these vastly different worlds.
Not surprisingly, given the resiliency of service personnel, some have come up with little tricks to help with the transition from work to home. We did a small survey about argument-triggers at an Army base a while back and found that many of the non-abusive service men and women in our comparison group had invented little rituals they performed prior to entering their homes. Some took off unit pins, bandanas, or other removable insignias. A few said a little prayer. One man made a point to talk to the bird on the porch and pet the dog in the hallway before interacting with his wife and children, as if working his way up the attachment ladder. Significantly, not one of the abusive personnel surveyed identified a transition from work to home, much less a need to negotiate it.
We can all learn a lesson from these resilient soldiers. I now advise my clients - civilian and military alike - and everyone I know, for that matter, to do the following:
These are small moments of connection, to be sure. But there is one thing I've learned in working with couples who struggle to make relationships last in our complex and demanding world: If you want to love big, you must frequently think small.