William X, an old friend who I have known for years, called in to see me as a client the other day. Bill is a classic 21st century executive – extremely successful in his career and with two children in their early teens. On the face of it, everything about his work and marriage looks just fine, but clearly he felt that there were danger clouds on the horizon.
As we started to talk, it became clear that a real problem was looming. All day he worked under huge pressure and felt that every decision he made at work was a critical one, not to be taken lightly. Sometimes he had to handle three or four problems simultaneously, causing him a great deal of stress.
“By the time I come home after work, my mental batteries seem totally flattened. Once I still had enough energy to pay attention to my family, all I now want to do is to shut-off.” He went on to say that he found himself dropping into an armchair, watching mindless rubbish on television, and giving his family the brush-off when they wanted to talk. Even during the dinner that followed, he would often have the TV switched on in the same room to watch the news, and be loath to communicate.
“I can feel the resentment building up in my wife”, he said. “The children have stopped trying to talk to me also. It’s creating tension and arguments, but I don’t know what to do about it.”
Bill’s situation is far from unusual and is too often one that eventually leads to divorce. The statistics on this, in countries like Australia, USA, Britain and Canada are awesome – between 40 and 50% of all marriages end up in divorce. In other countries (like some in Asia) where divorce is much more difficult, relationships get out of hand and instead of divorce, the result is constant conflict. If you also look at conflict between parents and children, with the latter getting out of control, the picture of a very similar crisis soon becomes apparent. Why?
A major reason may be the trend to small families. In our grandparents’ day, families tended to live in bigger homes that were handed down from one generation to the next, and often housed several generations. Mothers rarely worked, but when they did grandparents and maiden aunts or bachelor uncles who would share the house, were often prepared and able to help other family members at the end of the working day.
With the advent of the nuclear family and much smaller numbers of children, the situation has changed completely. Add television, increased job pressures, and the situations where both parties in a couple are working to produce a satisfactory income, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Communication breakdown is, in most cases a major input factor in such scenarios. When Bill and his counterparts come home, their partners have a real need to communicate. They have their own news and problems to discuss, have perhaps been working, acted as the family taxi for kids or elderly parents, rushed around for shopping, cooking, housework and other chores, and are every bit as fatigued as Bill.
Now bring the children into the equation. Dr Michael Yapko, one of America’s most respected authorities on Ericksonian psychotherapy recently told me during a seminar that he felt that the average American father spent less than 10 minutes per day talking to his children in meaningful conversation about important matters, without television switched on and in a situation where he was completely concentrating on the discussion. Think about that! Less than 10 minutes!! Is it any wonder, then, that children who need to talk to their fathers feel neglected and turn off? Is it surprising that they feel unwanted, and turn instead to peer groups which are often in the same situation and led by rebels who have devised ways of ‘getting back’ at their parents because they felt neglected?
Bill’s desire to turn off is perfectly natural – but extremely dangerous to the family relationship. If you are in a similar situation, a very simple technique and slight change in routine may well result in dramatic improvements.but extremely dangerous to the family relationship. If you are in a similar situation, a very simple technique and slight change in routine may well result in dramatic improvements.
Be prepared to make a new start
Think back to when you and your partner were first together. The chances are that you were prepared to listen to, and take an interest in, every word your partner said. That was the time when she thought you were wonderful! The first requirement to try and restore this scenario is to become a good listener again, not just letting the words flow over your head, but to hear what she is saying. You can only do this when you are feeling fresh and able to consciously devote yourself to paying attention to your family. So try this.
If you are driving home, pull your car into a quiet side street about halfway between work and your house, lock the car doors and almost close the car windows, switch off the engine, make yourself comfortable. If you do not drive home, find a quiet spot like a park-bench where you can be out of the way and totally relax.
Put your head back, close your eyes, and look for a pattern on the back of your eyelids. Most people can see this after a few seconds although it may take a little longer at first. The pattern is usually just some moving shapes and dots, not unlike a photograph of the viruses taken through a microscope in black and white. Even if you cannot see this pattern, it doesn’t matter, but the chances are that you will.
Next, concentrate on your breathing, visualising that every breath you breathe out is breathing out tension, and every breath you breathe in is breathing in relaxation. If you totally concentrate on these three things and completely ignore any other thoughts, noises, or anything else that is going on, you will you rapidly go into a state of relaxation called Alpha. When your brain goes into Alpha your breathing slows down, your blood pressure drops, your brain waves slow down, and you go into a wonderful, deep state of relaxation similar to that achieved through yoga or meditation. Five minutes in this peaceful state will be dramatically relaxing and empowering. 10 minutes in this state can be the equivalent of a 45 minute cat-nap. After 10 minutes in this relaxing state, say to yourself that you are now completely refreshed and ready to devote time to your family. You will give them your undivided attention and, where required, assistance.
Now, when you arrive home, make a point of sounding positive and cheerful. Greet your partner warmly and ask if there’s anything you can do to help before dinner. If the answer is no, perhaps ask your children if they want to have some kind of game while your partner is preparing dinner. That will get them out from under her feet and considerably assist in family bonding.
But it will be dinner, and the dinner-table conversation that will make the biggest difference. Give your family a chance to talk, and make very sure that you are listening and joining in the conversation without dominating it. Remember that women speak a different language to men. When you hear your partner telling you about something, don’t assume that she is asking you for advice. Very often women will tell you about their problems so that you know about them, but will want to work out their own solutions.
It is wise to be patient with your children when they tell you about their day also. Too many fathers start criticising their kids when the latter tell them about their day, and don’t realise that this is the fastest way to turn the kids off. It may take a while for the children to open up to you if you have been giving them the brush-off until now, but give it time and you’ll find you and your children will begin to respond positively to each other. I have found that families who turn the television off during meals and concentrate on table conversation become infinitely closer than those who don’t, so that may be something you want to consider.
So that’s my secret for a vast improvement in family relationships. If you still feel you want some time to yourself, discuss this with your partner. She may feel exactly the same way, in which case you might find that an hour after dinner is a great time to become a ‘couch potato’. If this has been pre-arranged with your partner – and she may want to join you or have some time to herself, it will cause no resentment.
Bill applied the above method and came back smiling four weeks later. “It’s like a miracle”, he commented. “The improvement in our family relationships has been dramatic, and the mental rest I take on the way home has made all the difference. I now enjoy coming home and talking to my wife and kids.”
Other clients have also reported that the pre-homecoming relaxation, followed by increased communication has been fantastic for them. The only way you will find out if this works for you is to try it. You may just find that miracles still happen!
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