Q We went from everyone in our family of three going in separate directions nearly every waking hour to being together 24/7. I feel like we are growing apart rather than closer together. My husband Sam’s habits annoy me a lot, and I tell him so. When he changes clothes, he leaves the dirty ones on the floor all over the house. He loads the dishwasher in an insane way. The list goes on. Everything I do seems to annoy Sam, too. Our son Jack, 15, is disrespectful and isolates in his room. When I try to get Jack to do something he doesn’t want to do, my husband takes Jack’s side. In fact, they often side against me. I know my husband has thought of separation and possibly divorce. How can our family enjoy life together and stay together?
A Staying at home has resulted in a diverse range of feelings and behavior in families. Some families have found ways to be closer but it’s believed that the divorce rate is on the increase as the quarantine spotlights issues that may not have been so glaring during normal, busy everyday life. Many of my clients and friends are anxious and afraid especially about the future. You may ask yourself what would your life be like if you were divorced and what kind of relationship you will have with your son in the future. What will his future be like? There are lots of real day-to-day problems to solve, and the uncertainty of the future to worry about. What can you do to use this time to strengthen your family bond?
First, I would recommend asking your husband how committed he is to staying together as a married couple. Your wedding vows included in sickness and health but did that include in normal times and in coronavirus times? Even if he is lukewarm on commitment, you can still ask him if he is willing to work on having a more enjoyable family atmosphere for right now.
Let me offer some suggestions:
- Find a good psychotherapist. Many are available by teleconferencing so you don’t have to leave your home. If you think a therapist is too expensive, then think about something you spend money on that perhaps doesn’t give you as much benefit as a therapist, for example, cosmetics and beauty treatments. What’s in your mind is as important or far more important as what’s on the outside.
- Call attention to your husband that he is often “triangulating” or engaging in “two against one” behavior. There is the danger of triangulation any time three people are involved.
- Ask your husband to think about how he supports your son’s habits that need changing. For example: enlist his help to get your son to be respectful of others. If he won’t support you, at least use some behavior modification with your son. One idea would be to ignore him and/or refuse to give or do something for him until he shows an improvement in respect. In addition, every time he shows respect, give him verbal praise or do something tangible like bake his favorite cookies and say something like, “Your behavior is more respectful and deserves a special treat.”
- Find an activity the whole family can engage in such as a puzzle, identifying birds, or a game to play. Put a puzzle out and start working on it. See if anyone will join you. Assess your husband’s and son’s interests and see if you can identify an activity along those lines.
- Severely limit the times in a day you can call attention to the things your husband does that annoy you. Rethink how to react to these things. Sometimes it helps to say something like, “I’ll pick up his things because he does something for the household that I don’t like to do.” Perhaps you can reload the dishwasher to the way you like it, or just be thankful he loads it at all. Most people are sensitive to criticism; reinforce the behavior you want to see.
- Make a list of things that you like about your husband and share this with him. Begin to move into a positive vibe around him.
- Think about couples counseling and family therapy sessions. I’d suggest working on your own issues first and then when your teletherapist thinks you are ready, begin couples therapy and family therapy.
If you and/or your husband think therapy is too expensive in time, effort, and/or money, believe me, that it is far cheaper than divorce.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RN, CS, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.