Lockdown living: ‘functional’ relationships might be as good as it gets

Beware mind reading – you really don’t know what anyone is thinking until you ask them

‘Many people are getting more belonging than, maybe, they ever wanted at the moment.’ Photograph: iStock

‘Many people are getting more belonging than, maybe, they ever wanted at the moment.’ Photograph: iStock

 

During one of US president Donald Trump’s rounds of woman-bashing, the governor of Michigan Gretchen Whitmer declared that she would be maintaining “a functional relationship” with the administration in Washington.

It got me thinking about the functional relationships that are being maintained in many households at the moment.

Trump, in high presidential style, had referred to her as “Gretchen Half Whitmer” along with sundry other insults because she disagreed with his coronavirus policy.

Michigan was going to need ventilators from the federal government, hence Whitmer’s commitment to a functional relationship.

Functional relationships in households, though, are more about people getting along because they have to although they are grating on each other’s nerves.

If you are unhappy about something, make the point gently at the start

Here are a few thoughts that might help oil the wheels:

First, watch out for mind reading. “Mind reading” is a concept from cognitive behavioural therapy and it refers to assuming you know what someone else thinks about you. Too often the assumption is that they are thinking something negative. Your other half might look angry, for instance, because he or she is fed up with being stuck in the house but you think it’s about you. Then you react to your own assumption by getting snippy with them and suddenly you have a row on your hands.

How is your love life surviving Covid-19?

Generally speaking, if you want to know what someone is thinking you need to ask them. If you don’t want to ask, then at least try not to make up your own version of what they are thinking. If I’ve learned one thing from the counselling field it’s that we haven’t a clue what’s really going on in other people’s heads.

Second, take a tip from relationship therapists John and Julie Gottman: if you are unhappy about something, make the point gently at the start. If you go in with both barrels blazing, you might get both barrels back or else the other person goes off and hides.

Third, raise issues when the other person is in a reasonable mood rather than when they are in a really ratty humour. Suppose you want to have access to the bathroom earlier in the mornings before your teen, say, takes it over for an hour. Don’t ask in the morning when their serotonin is low – we get serotonin (indirectly) from food and people can be like bears with sore heads until they’ve eaten. Ask when they are full and reasonable.

Finally, remember our four psychological needs as outlined by Dr William Glasser: freedom, play, belonging and power.

Many people are getting more belonging than, maybe, they ever wanted at the moment though I am well aware that others are alone and getting less than they want.

Power can be about achievement and accomplishment which you might find in remote working, the tasks of the household, or in games which deliver the “kick” of winning. Bossing everyone about can be another form of power and if that’s your poison, don’t complain if the others meet their power need by ignoring your demands.

Play probably became a psychological need because it’s a form of learning. Look at children playing and you’ll see they are learning the rules of interaction all the time as they go along. Play can also give you a sense of power, as I mentioned above, or of belonging.

Freedom is the one we are probably getting the least of. Retreating to your room or walking on your own are small ways to meet your need for freedom.

An awareness of these human dynamics has something to offer all households, even those maintaining functional relationships in which they have to be together though they don’t want to be.

Everything has limits. I guess we’re never going to see Donald and Gretchen get out the Scrabble or do a few rounds of musical chairs. One of them would reinvent the spelling of words to suit himself and confiscate the chairs by executive order.

For many households, though, functional relationships might be as good as it gets and maybe even better than anyone expects.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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