“Sometimes, having that fleeting moment of, ‘Oh gosh, I wish I could leave my family’, that’s all very normal,” says Sydney clinical psychologist Dr Marcelle Moore, adding that numerous clients have wondered during the pandemic if perhaps they don’t want to be a parent anymore. “I guess what we’ve been talking about is, ‘That’s just a feeling right now. It’s OK to have that feeling. It’s a feeling, a thought. You’re not acting on it. They’re not choices you’re making forever and ever.’”
Our negative thoughts, she adds, are frequently the ones that we pay greater attention to. To stop them from making us feel too bad, we need to “park them in the ‘unhelpful’ pile” and recognise that not only do thoughts come and go, but – unlike actions – they can’t hurt us.
But what if, as one friend wonders, you’ve lobbed harsh criticisms at your loved ones during this time? Could it already have permanently damaged the relationships?
“What’s killing me is the thought that the damage is irreversible,” she says of the impact of how “harsh, unpleasant and angry” she’s become during the pandemic with her two children, aged five and eight.
She says all this time together has become an “opportunity [for me] to notice everything that’s wrong” with her kids, and recalls a recent tantrum she had after her kids refused to put on their shoes.
“I just broke down,” says my friend, who has felt like she’s been reduced to a “domestic workhorse” during the pandemic, while juggling university study, work and homeschooling. “I was just like, ‘I can’t take this anymore. You’ve broken me. I’m trying my hardest every day and you just don’t care. You don’t help me. You make everything hard’.
“I’ve said jokingly, but also honestly, to some of my friends, ‘I feel like we’re not supposed to have these eight hours [a day] to damage them even more. They should be at school.’ I think that I have really harmed them [her kids], their self-confidence. And the harshness of my tone, often, maybe it’s hardened them.”
Moore, who specialises in counselling children and families, isn’t worried.
“We’ve got plasticity of the brain, the capacity to form new neural connections, and to change others when we’ve got repetition and exposure,” she says.
All that’s needed, she says, is to “repair the ruptures” to our relationships. “It’s about being able to go back and being able to say, ‘Oooh, that didn’t go so well, did it? I could have done that a bit better’… Even if it doesn’t happen in that moment [of conflict], we’ve got the capacity to change, and we don’t cause permanent damage.”
The same goes for romantic partnerships, as long as couples work through how to better resolve conflict, and haven’t left simmering tensions and unmet needs go on for so long that they’ve fallen out of love, says Sydney clinical psychologist Dr Rowan Burckhardt.
The goal, he says, is for couples to learn to engage in “gentle conflict” marked by a respectful “back and forth” of airing disappointment and irritation that still leaves room for each partner to care about the other’s feelings, even as they’re hurting. “Each person can express their experience and feelings, it’s almost like putting their [emotional] pieces on the table,” says Burckhardt, who specialises in couples counselling. “If people are doing that, they’ll find a way to fit those pieces, almost like a jigsaw, together.”
Even better news?
Those who work through their challenges often come out of particularly stressful periods with a closer bond than ever.
“In World War II and World War I when the men would go off to fight, they talked about a level of closeness with their comrades that you often don’t find amongst a few guys that go for a jog on the beach occasionally,” he says. “In a way, they’re in life or death situations, it’s bringing out all the emotions that you can imagine. Part of that is [as a result of] seeking people that you can rely on, that can support you, and all of that would lead to a level of closeness.”
One tip that can help us to feel close with a loved one who is otherwise irritating us is to look for the “exceptions” to how we’re feeling about them, to remind us that, though we might not have been liking them for the last day or two, we love them, says Moore.
“Love is different to likeability,” she says. “When you like somebody, you’re choosing to spend time with them, you’re enjoying the reciprocity of that kind of time together. But love, unconditional love… you still love your children regardless of what they’ve done. You may not like what they’ve done, and you may not like them.”
The trick is not to “overcatastrophise” those moments and feelings. (The caveat: if these feelings persist for a long time, and they’re impacting your ability to have a functional relationship with your loved one, says Moore, that’s a sign you need to seek help.)
I can report that it works. While lying in bed the other night, I began my usual pandemic pastime of mentally stewing in the cesspool of that day’s disappointments and thinking how they had shredded my patience so badly that my mind felt like a teddy bear that had been caught under the wheels of an 18-wheeler and dragged for blocks. But then I stopped and thought of a moment earlier in the day.
“You’re really smart at researching a lot of things, particularly textiles,” my eight-year-old had said to me, with an earnest look on his face. He was referring to how often he’s seen me scrolling on my phone looking for clothing to buy.
I had nearly corrected him to let him know that mummy was actually a broken capitalist, desperate for a dopamine hit as a result of feeling ravaged by having to help manage the anxieties, irritations and heartbreak of four people on any given work day.
But, instead, I had smiled and marvelled. Unlike me during my harsher moments, my kid didn’t immediately jump to cruel judgment. I was doing all right. And it felt good.
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