Any time we go through a genuine crisis, our intimate relationships with other people - your spouse or sweetheart, children, family and friends - are affected. Whether those relationships help us through the crisis or, instead, go down in flames depends on a host of factors, most of which are within our control.
People in crisis find it difficult to socialize with others, difficult to concentrate and difficult to have any get-up-and-go. Even small tasks or chores feel overwhelming and hard to complete. Libido diminishes considerably, and emotions other than depression or anxiety feel blunted and difficult to access. Normal things that have brought pleasure in the past - watching a movie, going out on the town, dancing, sports, sex and so on - no longer feel pleasurable or interesting. And some people have mood spirals, where their depression or anxiety keeps spiraling downward, and they get lower and more agitated and then even lower and even more agitated.
A crisis strains a relationship. A person in crisis is likely to be morose, pessimistic, hopeless, sad, anxious, fatigued and less fun to be around. People in crisis typically complain a lot. They say negative things about what's wrong with their lives, their work, their families, their partners and with the world. They often have flat emotions, withdraw from their vital relationships and are prone to saying or doing things that are insensitive, hostile, angry or uncaring.
It is hard to feel loving to someone who is giving very little back. It is hard to feel connected to someone who is withdrawn, angry, impatient, negative or simply not present. This is profoundly multiplied if both people in a relationship are going through a crisis together and neither of them have a whole lot to give to each other.
Here's what you can do to keep your relationship intact while one or both of you are going through a crisis:
• Affectionate touch is the one thing you can't let slide. Touch grounds us and keeps us connected to each other. Whether it's through cuddling, holding hands, hugging or just sitting next to each other, staying in touch is vital to keeping a relationship connected through hard times. It's also wonderfully comforting to be held.
• Develop good control over your words and actions toward others. Don't take your anger or irritation out on your intimate partner, your children or other people. It will not help you to push other people away.
• Make yourself go out and play together occasionally. As counterintuitive as it sounds, play and having fun reduce despair and remind us that we're still alive. They also keep us connected, knowing that someone is here with us through the hard times.
• Buy yourselves something you've been wanting and would enjoy.
• Create a list of goals and interests you wish to experience, achieve, accomplish or try together.
• Dress up occasionally. Put something on that makes you feel good.
• Take turns asking each other and listen to the answers: What losses are you grieving? What are you depressed about? What are you anxious about? How angry are you? How do you envision reducing these emotions so you can feel better? What helps you stay connected? How would you like me to nurture or take care of you?
• Get out in the sunlight as much as possible. If you must be indoors, sit near a window and use full-spectrum light bulbs.
• Make yourselves be physically active. Motion aids emotion.
• Look beyond your current feelings. Tell yourself: "I'm more than these emotions, more than this setback or loss. I'm not going to let these things define me, ruin my life or destroy my relationship."
• Spend time with a pet.
Try the following communication exercise with each other, stimulated by author Nathaniel Branden. Take turns answering these questions, and answer each question thoroughly:
I feel most connected with you when ...
You cold help me to talk about my feelings more if you would ...
If I were more willing to expose how vulnerable I feel ...
If I brought 5 percent more friendliness to my encounters with you ...
If I were 5 percent more open to hearing your feelings ...
If I were 5 percent more responsive to your needs ...
When I get withdrawn, you could pull me back by ...
I love that you ...
I love that we ...
See if you can find a greater meaning in your loss.
Eliminate sugar, caffeine and junk food and limit your intake of alcohol. You want to get through this, not numb it so that it stays buried just below the surface.
Get help from a psychotherapist and/or a marriage and family therapist. Grieving, depression and anxiety are all highly treatable.
Tell your partner what you like about him or her, love about him or her, admire or respect about him or her and cherish about him or her.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder, Colorado. His column is in its 20th year of publication and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: www.heartrelationships.com.