Communication in Crisis

We sat side by side on the couch, outwardly silent in our pain. Our inward thoughts were tumbling and turning with confused questions and chaotic fear. The shocking statement had come from one of our teens, after a recent relocation: “I don’t belong. I hate school. I want to die.” Ok. This came from The Princess, aka Drama Queen. However this wasn’t the first time she’d said it, and with grades plummeting, no friends and 8 red flags of depression waving for some time, we were more than on alert. We were moving into crisis. There were no words. One of us reached and took the other’s hand.   Communication in marriage can be challenging at the best of times. What about when you’re in crisis? When the pressure of the situation is so great, you can barely keep yourself from blowing apart (exploding?) let alone hold it together with your partner? 

Here’s some of what I’ve learnt about communication in crisis from 34 years of marriage, 4 kids, life as a global nomad and coach to many expat couples:

Crisis communication is not our ‘best’. We revert to ‘survival’ mode with any perceived threat because our brain takes us to flight-fight or freeze. This includes the arena of communication in our marriage relationship too. In calmer seasons there can be clear, controlled and connected communication.  Not always so in crisis! Survival mode communication is communication that isn’t always effective, often hurtful. What happens? Often there’s fighting over who is right, blaming, trying to control, shutting down, not speaking truth so mistrust and misunderstandings build, withholding information etc. We don’t want to communicate this way! Yet all we can see, feel, taste and smell is the insurmountable obstacle surrounding us. We hurt, so we take out that hurt out on the one we love most.couple sitting on a coach

You’re in this together. You’re on the same team… standing together and looking in the same direction, even though it may not seem that way.  Don’t make it a war zone. Two are better than one. When one falls, the other is there. Two heads (on two different people!) are best. So are two perspectives. Solutions come when you commit to working together.

Your spouse can’t fix it – nor can you. Most of the time I don’t want my husband to fix things … except when I’m in pain, especially around a kid crisis. Do something, I plead! Am I the only one or are you with me?  And what kind of pressure is that? Believe me, he wants to do something! He IS strong and he IS my knight in shining armour. Yet there are times when even my strong knight in shining armour IS powerless. To admit this is freeing. For myself and for him. Let go of unrealistic expectations and stay in reality.

You CAN handle everything. You are much stronger than you think. Within each human is a well of resilience – a strength of spirit that allows perseverance no matter what. You don’t know how deep that well is until the bucket of crisis descends into it. You’ll be surprised.  Maybe this is all you need to hear today to keep you going!

Change will happen. Crisis or pressure doesn’t last forever. It will ease, shifting with time. You will gain perspective. New information will come allowing you to adjust your plans together. Maybe you will change in how you handle it. Peace will come.  It won’t keep feeling this hard. Crisis is the place of personal and partnership transformation. 

8 Effective Ways to Communicate in Crisis:

couple cuddeling1. Talk with touch. Touch is a powerful communicator of love, allowing us to know we aren’t alone in the mess. It encourages when words can’t be spoken. And adds to words when they can. When my husband puts his arm around me, I feel safe. I feel like we’re together. Studies prove physical touch reduces tension and helps regulate emotions and perspective. What kind of touch communicates connection, safety and love for you? Let your spouse know so they can deliver. Ideas: A hug, arms around shoulders or waist, cuddling, holding hands, pat on the back, hands lovingly around the other’s face, spooning in bed or on the couch, foot or back massage, sex…

2. Make eye contact. Eye contact across the room with loving thoughts behind it is a powerful indicator of support. I see in my mind’s eye the many times my husband and I have looked each other in the eye with empathy, love and concern. It buoys the spirit and strengthens the resolve. Even though you’re feeling stressed, look into the eyes of your spouse and say in your thoughts, “I love you. We can overcome. There is a solution…” If you can say it out loud, better yet!

3. Create a safe place for “clearing”. In coaching, “clearing” is a place to rant and rave. Marriage psychologist, John Gottman recommends a daily “sanctioned whining session,” where “each spouse gets to complain about any catastrophe that occurs, while the other is understanding and supportive.” In crisis we especially need this. Allow your spouse to ‘whine’ in the way that’s most meaningful to them. Often guys will need to go into their cave for alone time. Give him that space. Women will need to talk it out. Ask: “Do you need to clear? How can I help?” or “What are you feeling (or thinking) right now?” Or say, “I just need you to listen as I clear.”

4. Tell each other what you need. The crisis is often not the issue… rather the feelings that come from the crisis – helplessness, hopelessness, fear, overwhelm. When we listen and validate each other’s feelings, we create trust.  “How can I help?” or “What do you need from me?” are invitations to your partner. He/she may not know how to answer. That’s ok. Go back to touch if they’re open to it.  Remember – neither of you is a mind reader even though you think you may be! Don’t assume. Check things out with each other. couple cooking together

5. Be nearby. If one or another isn’t ready to talk, being nearby is helpful. Presence shows support and care. Ideas: together play with the kids; do household chores side by side; have a drink; take a shower or bath; if your spouse goes to bed early, go and lay with them; read or do other hobbies in the same room.  It’s easy to become an island on your own in the pain of crisis. Lean into each other, even when it takes great effort.

6. Make an immediate plan. Plans give purpose and forward action.  Focus on what you have control over. What can you do right now? Brainstorm. Then choose one or two things to do that you can agree on. Don’t make it about your idea trumping your spouses, but rather what would be best in the situation. If you can’t see eye to eye, take one thing you will allow the other to do… and they will allow you to do. Check in regularly. Keep each other informed about what’s happening through calls or texting. Information empowers. It settled emotions.

7. Stay away from the blame and shame game. In crisis it’s easy to blame, feel guilty, fling resentment, bitterness, or take things personally. We can shame the other or hurt with what we do or don’t say. Choose to set aside these games and realize it’s not going to help the situation. You can deal with it later. In the end it doesn’t matter who may be at fault.

8. Celebrate. Once the worst of the crisis is over, take time to celebrate your love, commitment and success. So often we forget to celebrate. It’s an important part of keeping marriage alive and well!  Speak encouragement and affirmation in what you saw in the other. What worked well? What didn’t? What lessons were learnt?  Come up with a crisis communication plan for the future. Most organizations have one, why not your marriage!

Crisis is an opportunity to communicate, above all, your character and committed love.  No family crisis can tear a marriage apart unless you let it. Communicating in crisis takes self-sacrifice. Tough? Yes… but not impossible. All things are possible! As you go the long haul in this journey called ‘expatriate marriage’, you’ll find it so worth the investment you make.

Empowering you to live from a strong marriage. It’s a firm foundation for your family!

Signature of Becky Matchullis - Expat Family Resilience Coach

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