Q&A with Geoff: How do we not offend each other as a family when we’re so stressed out?Sep 08, 2021
When we both will have so many needs and so much pressure, and we are already emotional from these stresses, what can I do to not offend my husband (or my husband offend me – or either of us our children) when a need isn’t met or either of us are sincerely exasperated by situations.
We are in a stressful period of life. I will be juggling four school-age kids and all their extra-curriculars while also having a newborn baby next week. I am already anxious about some of my children and their progress, three of whom have IEPs and will need special assistance this year. My husband, who is a medical resident, will need to really focus on studying for boards at the end of the year.
We live far from families and are used to working together to pull the load we have created (and love), and this will be a shake up, over which we are both anxious about. We love and respect each other, but I find that when we are so stressed and worn and stretched with so much anxiety and worry, our communication spirals. We have both identified this and have been working on this. I feel like we have made a lot of great progress over the past few years!
However, I see us regressing as we are literally at the gate of the arrival of this new baby and my husband’s more demanding schedule.
It sounds like you’ve created a busy and beautiful life and are now preparing to enter another difficult winter of emotional and physical scarcity. The fact that you’re even asking this question signals to me that you will likely face this next chapter of life with kindness, courage and perspective. Your awareness of what’s coming will do much to set everyone up for success.
However, I recognize that despite your best intentions, you’re still going to experience very real human responses that knock the relational wind out of you. Let me share ideas and observations to help you hold each other close in the coming months and years.
First, I hope you’re not the only one in the family who is thinking about what’s coming. If you are alone in this awareness, it’s time to call a marriage council so your husband can become aligned with your concerns and join with you in equal partnership to provide protection to your marriage and family.
Use this meeting to set expectations, identify desires and set a vision for how you not only want to pass through this challenging time but, more importantly, what you want your marriage and family to look like on the other side of it. This ounce of prevention can become a map you return to in the future when things feel off track.
I recommend you make this meeting a weekly or monthly recurring event so you can evaluate and make necessary course corrections. You can check in with each other at regular intervals to make sure you’re each getting what you need. This type of engagement will send consistent signals that you care deeply about having each other’s backs. This is especially important when you feel buried and alone in your own stressors and want to believe no one cares.
After you’ve aligned your vision as a couple, I recommend you pull your four children together for a family council. While I don’t know their ages, I suspect they’re all still young. Even if they can’t remember specifics or details, they are impacted by the emotions and stress of their parents. This is a chance to give them context about how things are going to change and how it will impact them.
For example, mom may need more naps and quiet time. Dad may need more time to study and fewer interruptions. They may be asked to take on more housework. I believe when children know that their contributions are truly meaningful to the family and they see themselves as part of the greater family success, they are more willing to participate and support. You can also alert them to the fact that they may pick up on more stress and tension at times.
Encourage them to express their feelings and needs so they don’t blame themselves for the tension.
As you identify individual needs and work to weave them together with love and support, it will create something strong and beautiful. Also, as you identify each person’s needs, you’ll feel greater love for them and desire to help them. This interweaving of needs is based on respect, compassion, kindness and love. The resulting unity will be a protective shield against the dissolution of your bond.
Even though you’ll all be stretched to your capacity in the coming weeks, months and years, there will be times one of you will have more than the other. In the honesty of your love, it’s important to be generous with what you have. That could be your time, your interest, your presence, your hands, your compassion and so on. While it may not balance out equally every single day, you can learn to trust that each person is giving what they can.
Jeffrey R. Holland taught this same principle using a simple analogy that invites us to pay close attention to each other’s stress levels:
As a youth in England, Samuel Plimsoll was fascinated with watching ships load and unload their cargoes. He soon observed that, regardless of the cargo space available, each ship had its maximum capacity. If a ship exceeded its limit, it would likely sink at sea. In 1868 Plimsoll entered Parliament and passed a merchant shipping act that, among other things, called for making calculations of how much a ship could carry.
As a result, lines were drawn on the hull of each ship in England. As the cargo was loaded, the freighter would sink lower and lower into the water. When the water level on the side of the ship reached the Plimsoll mark, the ship was considered loaded to capacity, regardless of how much space remained. As a result, British deaths at sea were greatly reduced.
Like ships, people have differing capacities at different times and even different days in their lives. In our relationships we need to establish our own Plimsoll marks and help identify them in the lives of those we love. Together we need to monitor the load levels and be helpful in shedding or at least readjusting some cargo if we see our sweetheart is sinking.
Then, when the ship of love is stabilized, we can evaluate long-term what has to continue, what can be put off until another time, and what can be put off permanently. Friends, sweethearts and spouses need to be able to monitor each other’s stress and recognize the different tides and seasons of life. We owe it to each other to declare some limits and then help jettison some things if emotional health and the strength of loving relationships are at risk.
Even though you may do everything you can to create an environment where you are setting yourselves and children up for success, you’re still going to lose your cool and get on each other’s nerves. Successful families aren’t conflict-free. Successful families know how to repair and return to connection.
Even though we do everything we can to prevent problems by anticipating needs, approaching our partner calmly and letting some things go, we’re still going to be surprised when something unexpected creates conflict. Even if we don’t give the textbook response in that exact moment, we can still circle back and repair. Our bodies may need a break and some distance can help us regain our emotional balance.
Returning to the conversation with some clarity and softness can help us find each other again.
This combination of prevention and intentional repair will create an upward virtuous cycle in your marriage and family. While you can’t control or predict when the perfect storm of exhaustion, impatience, stressors and other variables will combine against you, you can know that there is a well-marked road back to each other.
It can also help to externalize the stress and tension instead of always making it personal. For example, when you talk about your stress, you can focus on the challenging conditions that are hard for all of you instead of framing it as a problem with your partner’s character.
While there may be a need to adjust some behaviors that aren’t helping the situation, giving each other the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing the best they can, despite the conditions, can soften the sharp edges of your situation.
I also recommend that when you feel a strong negative emotion that you make a practice of becoming curious about that emotion so you can present it to your partner in a softer way. For example, let’s say you feel upset that your husband is spending too much time on his phone when he’s home. Slow down and see if you can notice what the anger signal is telling you.
You might discover that you’re feeling lonely. You might feel unappreciated. The softer we can present our needs to our partner, the more likely they’ll respond in compassion.
As you continue to shape your environment to set each other up for success with individual, work and family needs, you’ll have more discernment and insight about how to best meet the most important needs. Your regularly scheduled councils will give you a chance to monitor and adjust. And finally, please don’t be too hard on yourselves as you work to repair the inevitable injuries that are part of living in a marriage and family.
I’m confident you’ll pull together and continue building a beautiful family culture.
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