Being a caregiver was the hardest job I ever did. For 16 years, I served as a caregiver to older adult family members during their last illnesses. The work was exhausting and emotionally draining. I slowly lost my loved ones to Alzheimer’s disease and/or cancer. I struggled to maintain my full-time job while caring for my loved ones. As their health worsened, I gradually eliminated other activities until there was essentially no free time, and not nearly enough sleep. I attended to my loved ones’ physical, emotional, and spiritual needs at end of life. I grieved each loved one who died.
Being a caregiver was the most fulfilling job I ever did. I wouldn’t trade those precious years as a caregiver, or the intense months of end-of-life caregiving, for anything in the world. I learned to carry on, even when I felt empty, depleted, and inadequate. I learned to draw strength from my faith, family, and friends. I learned to show my loved ones that I loved them for who they were, not for what they did. I learned to speak by my actions, when I could no longer reach my loved ones by my words. I learned that the most profound communication is without words. I realized that caregiving was the work that I truly loved—although it was not the work for which I had been educated.
Being a caregiver led to my new career. After my loved ones died, and I was alone, I felt lost. I went to a therapist. He said that I was experiencing normal grief, plus a need for a midlife career change. After he guided me through a long, careful exploration, I realized that I wanted to care for older adults, including those who are nearing end of life; and that I wanted to be a counselor. My therapist suggested that I get a master’s in social work. In the summer between my grad school years, I chose to take a certification course in caring for persons with dementia. I learned that my path from a personal dedication to a professional one was not unusual. Each participant in the class—whether instructor or student—had been a caregiver to family member(s) with dementia, who had since died. Each participant said that caregiving was incredibly hard. And each participant said that they wanted to keep learning skills that would enable them to help persons who are currently suffering from dementia, and to help their caregivers.
May I walk with you? If you have been diagnosed with a serious chronic illness, or if you have a loved one who has been diagnosed with a serious chronic illness, it would be my honor to share your journey with you. It is too hard a journey to travel alone.
October is domestic violence awareness month, my goal is to give you all a little information about what violence in relationships might look like, the prevalence, what you can do when you’re experiencing violence, and how to support those who might be. Every relationship is unique whether you are reading this and thinking about your own romantic relationship or someone you care for, it is important to recognize that every situation is different, relationships can be complex, and this in no way summarizes every experience.
Conflict is a normal part of intimate relationships. There are times, however, when conflict can result in violence. Intimate partner violence (IPV) describes numerous behaviors that aim to cause harm to a current or former romantic partner. Different types of IPV include physical violence, sexual violence, emotional violence/psychological abuse, threats, and stalking. Additional behaviors can include financial abuse (for example preventing a partner from earning an income or obtaining financial resources), and relational aggression (for example damaging a partner’s reputation or hurting their social standing).
We often think these things won’t happen to us, but no one is immune to the threat of partner violence. In fact IPV occurs across all ages, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and between both same and opposite sex couples. In the United States rates of IPV vary with about 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men reporting they have experienced IPV 1. These behaviors start early with 1 in 5 female high school students reporting abuse by a romantic partner 2. IPV can have deadly consequences, in fact, it is the leading cause of female homicides and on average nearly three women are murdered a day at the hands of their current or former romantic partner 3.
Situational Couple Violence
Fortunately most instances of conflict and most instances of violence do not end in homicide. When we imagine domestic violence we usually picture a partnership with one coercive and controlling partner and another partner that is clearly the victim. While this does happen and can have devastating consequences, it is much more common that a couple engage in what psychologists refer to as “situational couple violence”. This type of violence is less lethal, and usually involves an argument that has spiraled out of control. Situational couple violence is far more likely to be mutual in nature and less frequent. Couples that experience this type of violence in their relationship would likely benefit from counseling services that focus on improving communication between partners, navigating recurring conflict, and tips for de-escalating when emotions run high.
Tips For De-Escalating Conflict
If you have had this experience some things to help de-escalate conflict include having a negotiated time out, this is a time that you and your partner agree upon to step away from the argument and pick a time to return. Another tip would be to match and de-escalate. When we are confronted with conflict, our default reaction is sometimes to become defensive and in turn get angrier than your partner (match and escalate), this is less than ideal and the trend is a spiral to greater conflict. Instead we should aim to do the opposite, by remaining calm we remind our partner and ourselves, that this is a disagreement, not a fight. Another tip is to hold space, take the time to understand your partner’s perspective and get to the root of the conflict instead of reacting instinctually; get curious about the feelings and concerns of your partner. The goal is always a calm conversation. These are just a few general tips for navigating conflict; additionally speaking with a counselor can likely help to develop specific tips and work through tough issues when it’s hard to handle alone.
What To Do When Your Partner is Dangerous?
But what happens when this is not possible in your relationship. When it’s not possible to have a calm conversation with your partner. It is still worthwhile to seek counseling. Women with a history of IPV are three times more likely to report that their mental health is poor compared to those who do not have a history of violence. If getting help is possible, it’s worth considering. However, we know that it is not always possible. In relationships with a coercive and controlling partner it may be unlikely that counseling would be considered and may even be seen as a threat; my recommendation for those who feel they are in this situation is to come up with an emergency or safety plan. Have a bag, phone numbers, money and documents, anything you might need. Include information on how to reach a friend, family member, or shelter that you know you can go to. You can even have this bag at another person’s house, if you feel it’s more safe than having it in your own home. Set up a key word with someone you trust so that you can alert him or her if you are in danger. Call the domestic violence hotline for more tips and help with your plan. It doesn’t always feel like it, but there is always a way out. Your safety is incredibly important. Have an emergency plan.
How Can I Support My Friend?
As you’ve read there are different types of violence and how you respond to your friend might be related to the type of violence they are experiencing. No matter the circumstance, the most important thing you can do for your friend is to be there as nonjudgmental emotional support. Listen to your friend and believe them, it is likely that it is taking your friend a lot of courage to share with you. Offer whatever support you feel comfortable offering, that is likely to be different for everyone and that’s ok. The ways you can help vary but can include anything from suggesting helpful resources to offering to let your friend leave their emergency bag at your house. The level of support you’re able to give might differ, again that is ok. Follow up with your friend; ask if its ok to follow up, they may want to pretend that they never disclosed, it is not your job to remind them, but as a friend it may be part of your role to follow up. When you do follow up ask “Is now is a good time to talk?’.
This can be tough for you too. You likely care deeply for your friend, it is important that you get support if you need it too. Any domestic violence hotline available to your friend is also available to you. Additionally counselors are available to help you navigate circumstances, conversations, and feelings that may arise while supporting a friend experiencing IPV. Experiencing IPV and being support for someone who is experiencing IPV can feel incredibly isolating or overwhelming, but you are not alone.
If you or a loved one is experiencing domestic violence please reach out to any of the resources below.
Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S. G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., . . . Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Silverman, J. G., Raj, A., Mucci, L. A., & Hathaway, J. E. (2001). Dating violence against adolescent girls and associated substance use, unhealthy weight control, sexual risk behavior, pregnancy, and suicidality. JAMA, 286(5), 572-579.
Violence Policy Center (2020). When men murder women: An analysis of 2018 homicide data. Washington, DC. With Data from the Federal Bureau of Statistics.
Written By: Dr. Monica Yndo. Dr. Monica Yndo is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Concordia University Texas. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from The University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research focuses on communication and conflict in relationships, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, social support, and family dynamics.
As we continue to live in a socially distant world, we may be finding ourselves spending more time with our partners and/or family members, inevitably increasing the likelihood of conflict and/or miscommunication.
Conflict in relationships is normal — the way we choose to “fight” defines whether or not the conflict is healthy or unhealthy.
Here are some tips for fighting fairly with your loved ones:
Start with curiosity versus judgment – notice the conflict cycle. Ask yourself:
What role am I playing in the conflict? Notice how you are usually reacting – defensiveness? Yelling? Walking away? What could your reaction be telling you? Is a boundary of yours being crossed? Are you carrying a responsibility that you don’t need to? Be curious about your reactions by simply noticing them versus judging them or being hard on yourself – you’re human!
What headspace am I in when entering a conversation with my loved one that turns into conflict? Chances are you may be entering into important conversations while already feeling dysregulated from the day – lots of work calls, managing the kids new online school, running errands (let’s be real – we all have a lot going on as we continue to adjust to life in a pandemic). Start with taking some time to take care of yourself – this can be something you do for 5 minutes of the day to an hour!
When are my loved one and I usually having these conversations that turn into conflict? Set a time for important conversations so you both have time to regulate before entering the conversation.
Reframe. View the goal of conversations as finding a solution to the problem versus winning.
You and loved one versus the issue NOT you versus your loved one
The two words that often increase the likelihood of defensiveness in the person being spoken to are, “Why” and “You” when used to start a question or statement. Try the I-statement model instead, starting with how YOU are feeling versus what your loved one is DOING.
“I feel ______ when ______. I need ______. What do you think?”
Repeat back what you heard BEFORE answering.
When we repeat back what we heard our loved one say first, we focus more on listening BEFORE coming up with our own response.
“I heard you say ________. Did I get that right?”
Ask for a break.
If you find yourself or your loved one escalating emotionally – name it AND choose a time to reconnect. It is impossible to have a productive conversation when we are only speaking from an emotional place – logic is no longer present.
“I’m getting angry. Can we talk about this again in an hour?”
Incorporating even one of these tips into your communication pattern will inevitably change the conflict cycle you and your loved one may be engaging in.
Practicing these tips is synonymous to learning a new language.
Learning to communicate is difficult! Give yourself compassion as you navigate this process. Lean in to what you are needing in a healthy way. Wishing you all fair, healthy fighting!