Stress is a reaction of the body to substantial or unusual demands – physical, environmental, or interpersonal. It often involves tension, irritability, high blood pressure, and depression. Stress can occur from positive and negative events and situations. Stress is a frequent precursor to depression and marital discord. It is a process, not a state. One may experience different levels of stress throughout the event. There are expected stressors such as caring for aging parents or the death of a parent. They can also be unexpected such as teen suicide or a miscarriage.
Crisis is a crucial situation that requires changes in normal patterns of behavior. A family crisis is a situation that upsets the normal functioning of the family and requires a new set of responses to the stressor. There are external crises such as hurricanes, tornados, downsizing, and military deployment. They can be internal such as alcoholism, infidelity, Alzheimer’s disease, or personal such as when you have a debilitating illness. Crises can be interpersonal such as when a spouse has an affair or structural such as involving the in-laws.
Both stress and crises are a normal part of family life. Sometimes they are part of the developmental sequence such as pregnancy, childbirth, and job changes/loss, children leaving home, retirement, and widowhood.
There are cumulative effects to crisis events. The greater the number of stresses or crises, the greater the need to develop coping and adjustment skills. For example: You become pregnant and your husband loses his job, you are then told that your child will be born with special needs and your in-laws think that you are not doing the right thing by keeping the baby. You would certainly need a lot of coping skills and support to get through the above scenario!
Many families are resilient. They have the ability to respond to a crisis in a positive way. Resilient families have:
- A joint cause of purpose
- Good problem-solving skills
- Ability to delay gratification
Resilience may also be related to an individual’s perception of the degree to which they are in control of their destiny.
Stress Management Strategies
There are some helpful stress management strategies that may require one to change their basic values or philosophy of life as the result of a crisis situation. For example, Christopher Reeve reported a complete change in his basic values. Previously, as an avid scuba diver, equestrian, and athlete, he had placed a great value on his athleticism. But his limbs became dead weight. “You begin to see,” he said, “that your body is not you and that your mind and spirit must take over.”
In order to manage stress one must attempt the following:
- Develop a realistic perspective – after the initial shock, parents of a child diagnosed with cancer, faced the worst case scenario and acknowledged that treatment might be beneficial
- Avoid blame – do not blame each other, rather, protect each other from self-blame and self-reproach
- Seek opportunities for fun – try not to let the tragedy totally dominate your world – go out to eat, to the movies, take walks
- Keep destructive impulses in check – rather than responding to the crisis with anger, drug/alcohol abuse, or emotional withdrawal
- Intervene early in the crisis – when you see a crisis coming, try to prevent the problem from getting worse
Other helpful strategies are: exercise, sleep, love, and multiple roles – too many things to do to get depressed, and always use humor. Harmful strategies only make the crisis worse. These unhelpful strategies include: keeping feelings inside, taking out frustration on others, and denying or avoiding the problem/issue.
A family crisis usually has three stages: onset, disorganization, and reorganization.
Stage 1 or Onset is the start of the crisis and the increasing realization that a crisis has occurred. The initial reaction may be disbelief. The task during this stage is to define the problem and to gradually accept that a crisis does exist.
Stage 2 or Disorganization is a time when shock and disbelief may make it impossible to function or think. Sometimes the effects of the stress are delayed. Drug/alcohol abuse may increase during this time. It is a time that the family is in chaos and hitting the bottom.
Stage 3 or Reorganization is when the family members take action. The family reorganizes at a new level. This level may not be like the old level and can be better or worse, but it is higher than the old level and starts the family in a new direction.
Types of Crises in Families
Physical illness and disability, death of a spouse or close family member, and major illness/injury to self are a type of crisis that families endure. When you promise, “In sickness and in health, “you really don’t know what that might mean. A former East Carolina University baseball coach, Steve LeClair, and his family have been an example in Greenville of coping with this kind of crisis. In an article in the local paper, Mrs. LeClair talked about how her husband of many years had gone from being independent and strong to being bony and dependent on others for all his personal needs. She went on to state that she had to come to the realization that her marriage was dramatically and permanently altered just as her husband had to realize that his illness was debilitating and would lead to an early death. Their daughters also had to come to terms with how their father’s illness would affect their lives. Mrs. LeClair also spoke of the wonderful times they had had as a family since the diagnosis. They still were going to basketball and baseball games, and watching their daughters perform in softball and gymnastics. They still watched movies and laughed and cried like other folks. She attributed her strength to her friends, parents, church, and community. She ended by stating that they were not looking forward to the end, but that they were preparing for it.
There are issues that should be discussed when you or your spouse becomes seriously ill. You need to discuss intimacy and its threatened loss due to the illness. How will you deal with this emotionally, intellectually, sexually, spiritually, and recreationally? Think of it as a challenge to be shared together. Another is to establish health boundaries. Do not let the illness become the focus of the marriage and try not to allow discussions of the illness in the bedroom. Even though the illness may be terminal and you want to spend all your time together, you still need some time apart for reflection, regaining strength, making plans for the future.
Another crisis is infidelity. John Edwards, Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, and Jesse Jackson have all had relationships while married. Infidelity does occur at all levels and is a family crisis. A 1998 Time/CNN poll reported that 85% of the respondents reported that infidelity among spouses is wrong. Even cyber-sex can affect a marriage. It involves secrecy, sexual tension, and takes time, attention, and energy/affection away from one’s partner. Even though most cyber-sex relationships do not involve off-line sex they have all the characteristics of infidelity.
Men tend to have extramarital sex without love while women try to connect extramarital sex with a love relationship. There are many explanations for extramarital involvements, including:
- Variety, novelty, and excitement
- Workplace friendships
- Relationship dissatisfaction
- Homosexual relationship
- Aging – trying to be young again
- Absence from partner
Other factors can include high interest in sex, permissive sexual values, having sexual opportunities, and not being involved in an organized religion.
Among the Masai of Tanzania in East Africa, a Masia man coming back from a long journey in the forest herding cows/goats/sheep can put a spear outside the house of another man’s wife to alert the husband that he is inside having sex with his wife. Seeing the spear, the husband does not bother the visitor, since to do so would be impolite.
Societies also differ as to how serious a violation of morality they regard adultery. In the US, the penalty ranges from nothing to alimony. In countries that practice the Islamic religion, such as Northern Africa and parts of the Middle East, adultery is considered a major sin and execution by stoning is considered appropriate. Confirmed adulterers (4 eyewitnesses are needed to confirm their shameless behavior) are buried from the waist down and stoned to death. A number of years ago there was a case in Africa of a woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death for committing adultery. She was divorced at the time and had a sexual relationship with a man and became pregnant. She was tried and found guilty of adultery because she was not married to the man with whom she had a sexual relationship. Amnesty International became involved and her case is now being appealed.
Unemployment is a family crisis although if usually affects the man more because of his traditional role as breadwinner in the family. It can be a positive experience, if the couple reevaluates their priorities, downsizes their lifestyle, and decide what is important to them.
Substance abuse may occur to escape family stress but it causes stress to all members of the family. It is a family crisis not only when spouses abuse drugs/alcohol, but the family also becomes stressed when a child is an abuser.
Death is a family crisis. It is particularly acute if the death is a suicide because the family is left with many unanswered questions and a loss at not being able to help or say good-bye. There are high levels of guilt, shame, rejection, and anger. In some religions, suicide is considered a mortal sin so the family may have to deal with this also.
The death of a child is particularly hard to deal with. You expect your parents to die before you, but not your child. It can affect a marriage by either tearing it apart or making it stronger. Some seek solace in religion and others lose their faith entirely. After the death of a child the couple should spend some time discussing the following issues:
- Intimacy and sexual needs
- Views and feelings about having other children
- Methods of childrearing to be used for the surviving child or children
Death of a parent is an expected stressor, but it is still a crisis when it actually happens. A part of your life is over when you lose the people that knew you when you were a child. Death of a parent can affect a marriage if one spouse does not feel that the other is supportive during this time, the partner does not comprehend the affect of this loss on you, or the partner thinks the other is taking too long with their grief.
Death of a spouse is the most significant crisis event for the elderly. Women are more likely to grieve openly and to seek help via family and friends. Men tend to see grief as something to get over and may focus more on their work or on an activity.
Abuse and violence are serious crises that too many people face these days. I will devote another blog post to this difficult topic…