I’m bending the alphabetical rules and writing about two topics beginning with M, as they seem really important and relevant right now. They reflect my personal life as part of a couple, and also my professional interests from when I was teaching.
M. Moods Whilst unfamiliar and often unwanted feelings are not unusual in these difficult times, and being forced to stay home with your partner can be hugely challenging, there is also the opportunity for love and intimacy to grow, and many couples are discovering new strengths in their relationships. Today I’m bending the alphabetical rules and writing about two topics beginning with M , as they seem really important and relevant right now. They reflect my personal life as part of a couple, and also my professional interests from when I was teaching.
For individuals and for couples, how much control we have over our moods is a puzzle. We also worry what ‘normal’ changes in mood look like, how long they may last, and what effect they may have on our relationships – especially when we are unable to distance ourselves physically. We may wonder about whether it helps to regard negative moods as ‘disorders’, and whether we should be less judgmental? Can we find effective ways to stay calm? There are many, many difficult questions about moods but here I will try to address a few aspects of coping with negative moods in ourselves, and in our relationships.
Let me talk personally. A few days ago, I freaked out. I felt overwhelmed by a surge of anger, fear, disappointment, worry and mistrust, and I couldn’t contain my feelings. It didn’t last long, but it was a powerful reminder about the stress of ‘lockdown’ – and how moods affect the individual as well as his or her partner. Afterwards, when I was calmer and spent time with my partner sharing our experiences of what we’d both gone through, I felt vulnerable but stronger, clearer about our expectations of each other, and of what was troubling me. And it brought us closer. It illustrated that moods vary in the degree to which they are bearable for the person’s partner, the extent to which they are puzzling to him/her, and how destructive they are to the relationship. What also varies, is how completely the person themselves feels at the time that they are in the grip of emotions over which they have no control, and how soon they can return to feeling more balanced. Experiencing an intense mood and then managing to talk to our partner about it afterwards is a powerful and intimate experience.
Moving to consider a different scenario, with you as the observer: what if, rather than shouting or sobbing (as above), your partner appears to be more withdrawn than usual? It may help you both to find out what type of feelings are going through their mind – for example sad, disappointed, regretful? Or worried, fearful, insecure, embarrassed? Don’t be pushy, but it may be ok to ask what triggered these feelings at this particular time (-now, as opposed to a few days or a few weeks ago). You might also gently say you’d like to hear more, if they’d like to tell you. And accept that it might sound a bit crazy, a bit extreme. That’s the nature of moods!
If s/he seems withdrawn + angry (sulky, resentful, agitated) then talking, as described above, is not usually possible. And if s/he is obviously angry, you should acknowledge this, avoid retaliating or becoming defensive, and wait until another time to ask to discuss it.
Negative moods partially or completely impair our ability to have a rational discussion. The feelings take over. It’s important that people (adults or children) should not be told to ‘snap out of it’, or be told to stop feeling what they are feeling. Whilst not surrendering to your partner’s mood or ignoring your own emotional needs, try to understand what they are going through. If this is not possible at this point, be tolerant and kind. We all need to manage our own responses to our partners’ moods, but it’s not helpful to try to manage or ‘get rid of’ our partner’s moods. It’s also helpful to remember that for many people (especially men?) feeling that they’re not in control of their moods is a source of embarrassment or shame, and hard to discuss.
M. Motivation: By this stage of ‘lockdown’, many people find that – quite suddenly- they can’t motivate themselves to get on with even the most ordinary of activities. We feel paralyzed with a sense of “why bother?” This affects us individually and as couples. We may feel both physically and mentally drained, and our moods change. When our normal structures and routines were taken away, we were at first strengthened by reaching out to friends, sharing our experiences and discovering our own and others’ resourcefulness. But to a large extent this was a temporary distraction from (and a psychological defense against) the underlying uncertainty, fear and helplessness which is affecting us all. Staying motivated to get on with day-to-day activities (such as doing household tasks) or new projects in the face of this is hard, and couples may deal with feelings of apathy in different ways. Some individuals will feel resentful when their partner is not coping well, whilst they are managing fine being active: provide gentle positive encouragement, and be patient. Your partner will not be stuck forever!
If you’re the one trying to overcome lethargy or being stuck yourself, remember that motivation involves feeling ready to make changes, and then being able to get emotionally rewarded as a result of these changes – however small. Remember too that motivation fluctuates, in unpredictable ways.
It starts with a thought experiment: think back to when you did have the energy and desire to tackle a particular activity, and remember what you were feeling about yourself, and what did you think would be rewarding about it? Did it involve your partner or other people in any way? Now shift to projecting into the future: can you visualize how you would feel after completing this activity/activities? What precisely would the good feelings be? Perhaps it would help to choose an activity which would directly result in being thanked, or complimented. Think about a realistic (relaxed)timeframe- then explain your ideas to your partner, and ask for his/her co-operation. Don’t force yourself, don’t try to fulfill someone else’s expectations of you. Do re-read any inspiring piece of writing that you think will encourage you. Have a look at what I have written in these notes about Habits. And remember that in these strange times, not every day is a school day!