Isolation vs. Connection

It’s all a puzzle

If you have read many of my former posts, you are already well aware that I am firm in my belief that when people come into my office, those with good support systems tend to fare better. Which is a not-so-roundabout way of stating that we all need one another. Some of us are more introverted, preferring a smaller social circle, while others cannot get enough of meeting new people and being in crowds.
Generally speaking, I would guess the introverts are faring better with the isolation that comes for many of us with this pandemic. But no one is unscathed. After all, the most introverted among us simply have a smaller circle; introversion is not an indication of wanting to be with no one. It is my guess that even total hermits need some outside contact, if only to have someone with whom to argue.
Sitting on the coffee table in front of me is a copy of Dr. Vivek Murthy’s recent book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Interesting that this book was published just as the COVID-19 pandemic was unleashing its damage in this country. The best defense we have is isolation, which will help us physically and hurt us mentally. People are using social media to help offset this, but we all realize it is not enough.
I keep thinking, if we had a timeline for this it would be so much easier. Even if we knew it would go one for another year or two, it would be a known instead of an unknown. But here we are, all of us fumbling along and doing the best we can.
One of the things that has grabbed my attention is the way it has spread through nursing homes and assisted living centers. We do have one assisted living center nearby that has had zero COVID-19 cases to date, partly due to some of their staff literally living there for a little over two months so as to not bring the virus into the facility. Despite their heroics, we cannot be sure this can go on forever—though I did say “If I ever have to go into assisted living, that is where I want to be.”
Assisted living in general has been quite successful financially. I have personally resisted the concept because it appears to me they are charging higher and higher fees to put people into smaller and smaller spaces. It is meeting a big demand, though: Community. As people age (and yes, I am in that age group, though on the lower end), there are a lot of losses: friends, spouses, professional connections…and we do get tired of having to go to so much effort to make new connections. With assisted living, it is more or less built in.
Here is the rub: These places can easily become petri dishes for a pandemic. I am guessing their popularity will decline drastically as a result of COVID. I know that I, for one, am trying to figure out what my backup plan is in the event I lose my spouse and/or my health. I will definitely use my phone and social media. And I have an extremely good support system, so I will be okay. But what of the people who are struggling in that area already?
The questions are clear. The answers? It will be an adventure. That is the one and only certainty.

The Game of Corner

feeling cornered?

feeling cornered

Dr. Eric Berne, M.D. wrote a book back in 1964 called Games People Play, introducing the concept of Transactional Analysis (the parent, adult, and child ego states) and breaking a lot of problems down into the playing of games.  In these games, the rules are known only to the instigator, who may change those rules at a whim.  The point of his book was to encourage the rest of us to recognize how we were being manipulated, and to call the game.  

Dr. Berne died in 1970, at the age of 60; I suspect had he had a longer life, we would be hearing a lot more about his theories.  When his book first came out, my mother latched onto it like she had just discovered a lifeboat.  I suspect she was more enamored of psychology than I gave her credit for at the time.  Or she was feeling manipulated by someone in her life and loved that this famous psychiatrist had that someone’s nonsense pegged.  Whatever the reasons, I ultimately found myself also drawn to his theories.  If you pick the book up today, you will find a familiar ring to the games he cites:  “Look what you made me do,” “Let’s you and him fight,” “Corner”…. My focus today will be on “Corner”.

I have seen and heard about this game played so many times in so many ways, yet it is almost always successful in frustrating the mark/target or the person against whom this game is being played.  Essentially, if you are the target in a game of Corner, there is nothing you can do that will be right.

The game of corner involves constantly changing the rules, and never clearly stating what those rules actually are.  One example would be a person who complains because dinner is served too late for their liking, so you manage to serve it a half hour earlier the next night and they complain it was too early.

We all know of the person who complains because the house is a mess, then when you go on a cleaning binge the problem suddenly becomes that you are too busy with the house to pay attention to the people in it.  Others will berate you for not having pets, then complain about how those same pets they couldn’t live without—are such a nuisance.

Weight issues are a great platform for a game of corner.  Your partner complains about the healthy meals you serve, to the point where you say “Okay, then you do the cooking.”  They do, gleefully, substituting lots of fried food served with potatoes and gravy for the “boring” low-fat meals of salmon, baked chicken, and assorted fresh vegetables.  This is likely to result in you gaining weight, and they have you right where they want you:  in a corner.

How do you win at this game?  You don’t.  You recognize that you are being played, and you do whatever it is you wanted to do in the first place, without regard to the opinion of this person who has been calling the shots.

This is how you take your life back.

Arguing in Public

Arguing couple

Couple arguing

Have you ever been in a public place, having a pretty good time while minding your own business, and the peace was shattered by a couple people, or maybe an entire group, breaking into a boisterous argument?  Did you ever wonder why they didn’t keep it private?

I have come to the conclusion that there are actually times when keeping arguments in the public eye serves a purpose—sometimes a protective one. 

There is at least one valid reason for being very public with arguments, and I was recently exposed to that scenario.  I was walking out of a steakhouse in the middle of the afternoon and a woman zipped past me.  A couple minutes later I realized she was being followed by the man she had apparently gone in with.  Let’s call them Hannah and Fred.

Hannah kept Fred in her sights at all times, would not turn her back on him, and—notably—she would not go indoors with him.  (It was maybe 80 degrees outside and sunny, so no danger from the weather.)  As I walked into a store, they were facing each other down, probably eight feet apart.  I overheard Hannah’s “No way am I going to get in that truck with you.  You’re crazy!”

When I came out a few minutes later, they were still arguing.  Their expressions showed that not much had changed, though Fred was apparently beginning to realize that something had to shift or Hannah was going nowhere with him.  By the time I started to drive away, they were actually walking side by side.  They looked none too happy but at least he appeared to have calmed down enough that she probably felt safe to get into his truck.

Safety:  That is a reason some fights are kept public instead of private.  It would likely not be recommended by Miss Manners, but it does take priority over courtesy.  There can be a benefit to staying highly visible.

When I was a child, one of the first safety rules I learned was “Do not get into a car with a stranger.”  I recall once walking to school in the rain, and a sweet-looking elderly couple offered me a ride, to which I of course said “No, thank you.”  These people were probably exactly the dear hearts they appeared to be, but it had been ingrained in me to not put myself into such a vulnerable position.

Once we grow up and start developing relationships with other adults, we sometimes forget to protect ourselves in that same way.  They are not strangers, we think, and we then hop into the car with someone who is familiar but may not be trustworthy.  And of course sometimes the greatest danger comes from the very person we have come to love, who has become our most intimate partner before we see the dangerous side of him or her.

Safety planning can be very involved.  Part of it comes from observing and knowing what to expect of that person we have come to fear.  Hannah knew, do not get into a vehicle with Fred while he is still hot under the collar.  Once he has calmed down, it may be okay.

Hannah has also realized, it is far better to be publicly embarrassed than it is to risk being in a moving vehicle with Angry Fred, and to be out of public view and therefore have no chance that anyone can intervene in her behalf.

At least that is my best guess; I haven’t confirmed this with Hannah.

Witnesses can be a very good thing.

Talk It Over, Already

Talking statues

Statues in conversation

Some of my worst mistakes can be traced to my unwillingness to discuss a potential decision with someone else, to seek feedback, or at least to hear my own words reflected back to me. What stopped me? Embarrassment? I like to think I won’t again pass up the opportunity to reflect and share with others what I am considering—especially when it comes to dealing with any enigma. So if you want to do better than I did? Talk it over, already.
See? It doesn’t always require a professional. In many cases, a nonjudgmental friend can be helpful.
About that word nonjudgmental? That doesn’t mean your friend (or counselor) won’t call you out if they think you are wrong. Disagreeing should not mean the end of a relationship. If it did well, what would we do for friends? Because we are all wrong sometimes. Or at least need to consider a different viewpoint.
Let’s say you are trying to decide whether to pursue some higher education. You want to know if it’s a good idea as well as how to pay for it. One example from my own life involves when I first started wanting to pursue a graduate degree, but I had no clue how to pay for it. Did I go to the financial aid office? Um, no. I just stewed over it. (No, this oversight did not ruin my life.)
Let’s say your friend knows little or nothing about the benefits or costs of higher education. They can still reflect back, ask logical questions…they can lead you to deeper thinking, propose the questions you could be asking in pursuit of your decision.
It does often help to know someone with a specific expertise. Are you looking for financial advice? If you don’t want to reveal your finances, you could still get some general advice from a person whose expertise you respect.
I remember the time when someone told me the secret to their small business success was that they never borrowed money, that they had no debts. At the time time I was hearing this, several other voices were telling me to take a risk and go deep into debt: a thought that made me very uncomfortable. I picked the no-debt route for the small business I was running at the time, and have never regretted that decision.
You are not the only one who will benefit from your friend’s acting as a sounding board. Has anyone ever come to you for advice or counsel? Even if you weren’t interested in that role, I am guessing you were flattered. We all need to feel we matter, and providing moral support and a listening ear is one of the best ways I know to get that reinforcement.

The Last Straw in Relationships

breakup at park bench

the last straw

(Note: Before reading the following—this is important, critical even—if you are in a relationship involving abuse, DO NOT leave without proper safety planning. The most dangerous time is in the act of leaving.)

What ends relationships? Why do we call it the last straw? Often, the final insult, the breaking point, is something relatively minor in comparison to everything that has preceded it. For many, it is the point at which we realize nothing is ever going to change, nothing is going to get better. We can remain stuck in this situation or we can leave, but there is no option that will make it better for us if we stay. We see that can only stand by while it deteriorates further. Staying, we realize, means giving up any hope of improvement.
We often think primarily in terms of intimate or romantic relationships, but this also applies to platonic ones, to professional and business ones—even to family members reaching a point where they become estranged. Think of the employer who has promised you a raise every six months for the past there years, and this time when the raise doesn’t come through you start looking for other work in earnest. You have reached the point where you know this employer’s word is meaningless. It may not even really be about the money, just that you see the lies for what they are. Or it may be your mother who has picked fights with you at every opportunity since you were eight years old (or younger), and this time it is an even smaller than usual argument, but you are now 56 years old and have sudden clarity about how you will spend your remaining years—in relationships that bring you joy instead of chronic conflict. You hang up the phone and decide not to call your mother again, and to keep conversation to a minimum if she calls you—if you decide to respond to her at all.
Partnerships frequently end over long-standing issues, and something has reached a point where you realize you are not partners any more, that you have been carrying way too much of the load for way too long. Or it is something that indicates a shift in your own dynamic.
One story comes to mind for me, which I read in a magazine decades ago; I do not remember the source. A woman reports having been physically abused for years by her spouse; he even broke her jaw. When she was in the hospital, a representative from a domestic violence shelter sought her out and gave her a card, yet the article’s writer returned to living with this man. Until she came home one day to find her son and daughter watching TV, and her daughter had a welt on one cheek. The son said “Mom, she wouldn’t watch what I wanted, so I had to hit her.” This woman packed up and left that day. She was willing to tolerate all manner of abuse, but would not stand for seeing that pattern continue with her children.
Sometimes it is an escalation in an ongoing dynamic. It can be the boyfriend who was verbally abusive, but suddenly it becomes physical. Or it can be the wife who cursed you routinely but always in private, and suddenly she does it in front of friends.
Often, though, it is actually something much lower key than what you have been tolerating on a daily basis, only this time something shifts in you and you realize that there is nothing you can do that will improve this person’s behavior. It may be fifth time this week that your significant other came home with alcohol on their breath; the other four times, they started yelling at you and throwing things, then vomited in the corner and stormed out. This time they just passed out and you had no mess to clean up. But it was one too many, and you spend the remainder of that night making your exit plans.
When is the best time to leave? Someone told me once that it is the time when you no longer want to be with that person, and the message I heard at the time was that it is not wise to decide based on a specific incident. I disagree with that last part, because those specific incidents are so telling. After all, how do we know who and what a person’s true character is if not by how they behave?