Family life is marked by transitional moments. Throughout life together a couple could celebrate their first date, engagement, wedding day, anniversaries, birthdays, birthdays of children, first days of school, first day of college, retirement, becoming grandparents, and more. These moments are photographed, videotaped, remembered and celebrated. Time is marked by before and after these transitional events.
Change can be stressful
Yet even for such happy moments each transition carries with it a certain amount of stress. Few couples escape the wedding planning process without some measure of conflict between each other or with in-laws or families. While the college freshman is embarking on a new exciting adventure, the house never feels the same for parents and younger siblings. Other transitions are even more difficult – a family member is sick, a breadwinner gets laid off, a marriage ends, or a loved one passes on. It is in transitional periods that families encounter the most difficulty. Transitions are both tests of strength and opportunities for growth.
Talk it out together when in transition
So how does a family successfully navigate transitional moments? Perhaps the most important ingredient is communication. This involves not only the act of speaking but, perhaps more importantly, the manner it is received and the response. A supportive atmosphere invites communication and is characterized by warmth, softness, non-judgmental responding and non-defensiveness. This means the goal is to hear and understand, rather than help or give advice.
Be positive on purpose
Such an atmosphere does not often come naturally to a family. It needs to be cultivated during the times between transition. Renowned marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman refers to this atmosphere as either Positive Sentiment Override or Negative Sentiment Override. In other words, is the overall mood of the relationship more positive or more negative? This is changeable based on the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions between family members.
Commit to communicate ahead of time
Transitional moments are made worse when going through them alone. Make a commitment to be a supportive listening partner to your family members and you will contribute to a supportive atmosphere for yourself as well. Between these moments, endeavor to build these skills in preparation for the challenges sure to come.
For more, view our other posts in the Communication category of our blog.
Scott Rampy, M.MFT, LMFT Associate
Resident Therapist at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute