How to be more loving to loved ones.
It's a vicious cycle: You spend all day at work solving problems, fixing the mistakes of others, discussing banalities with people you don’t know—all with a smile on your face. It can get frustrating, so it’s no surprise that when you get home to the people you love, the effects of the day can make you...let’s just say, less than pleasant to be around. Sound familiar? As Valentine's Day approaches, it’s the perfect time to vow to be kinder to the people you love. We’ve gone to the experts to find out how to keep that goal—and how to forgive yourself if you fail.
“We tend to put on a social mask in front of friends and strangers that we let down in front of family,” explains Calgary couples mediator Debra Macleod. “We think we can be more real because our families are stuck with us, whereas our friends could walk away,” agrees Toronto clinical psychologist and relationship expert Nicole McCance. And tense situations are just exacerbated when celebrations that include the whole family roll around. “We step right back into the roles we used to play,” adds bestselling author and parenting expert Alyson Schafer of Toronto.
Speak the Languages of Love
Gifts, quality time, affirming words, physical touch and acts of service: “Different people give and receive love in different ways, so add variety to your repertoire,” says Schafer, referencing Gary Chapman’s 1992 bestseller The 5 Love Languages. So while it might frustrate you that your husband fusses over the food every night more than quality conversation with the kids, or that your brother is constantly late but arrives with gifts for everyone, understand that they’re speaking their own love language. “And be sure your form of loving lands well, too.”
Know your Triggers
“We tend to be triggered by the same things,” says McCance. “Reflect on what has set you off in the past, whether it’s not being heard, feeling criticized or being taken advantage of. Then, when you are triggered, visualize that negative energy bouncing right off you.” Agrees Schafer: “Pay attention to your mood state and your inner dialogue. When you feel your reactivity, make a mental note of it and recognize this is a choice point— here’s where you make the decision to de-escalate.” Note that, when at a group gathering, drinking is likely to weaken your defences, so limit yourself to one or two drinks, max, or you could reach your trigger threshold sooner than expected.
De-escalate (and have an exit strategy)
“Set the intention to be different,” says McCance. Before you go through your front door at the end of the workday, practice mindfulness, take deep breaths, count to 10, think calming thoughts. “You aren’t responsible for others’ behaviour, but you are accountable for your own,” adds Schafer. “It’s better to say nothing instead of saying something hurtful.” If you’re at a family party, resolve to go to a different room or, if worse comes to worst, leave. Macleod elaborates: “Based on how past visits have gone, know how long you can handle it before anxiety or anger sets in...and leave before then.” Setting in place an exit strategy relieves some of the pressure. Even if you don’t use it, you’ll feel better having a pre-planned escape.
Make Light of it
Oh, the kids are nagging you about something insignificant? Your husband’s teasing—yet again— went a little too far? “Picture it rolling off your back like Teflon,” suggests Schafer. “Take a light-hearted approach and tell yourself laughingly, ‘This is good content for my new blog, mycrazyfamily.com.’”
“Accept them for who they are,” adds Macleod. “Put in your time and reward yourself later with your favourite movie or a night out with friends.” Remember that you really adore your nutty family—and, when push comes to shove, if the world ended tomorrow you wouldn’t trade away one day with any of them.
Fake it Till you Make it
Keep everyday conversations light and loving. “If you can spend those first minutes when you get home being pleasant and positive,” says Macleod, “others are more likely to respond in kind.” This is good advice for family occasions, too. She suggests flattering each family member upon arriving—yes, even the ones who drive you crazy—to set a pleasant tone as well as keeping conversation light. Adds Schafer: “Be inclusive, ask how you can help, and practice gratitude. Being kind to others stimulates the vagus nerve, altering the brain’s chemistry to release oxytocin and dopamine, creating calm feelings.” Set time to discuss your issues in-depth later, if needed, but keep them out of the pre-dinner hustle.
“We have high expectations for our family life to be special and always filled with love and joy,” says Schafer, adding that we’re more likely to unravel when we’re not only under stress, but also when we see a big gap between expectations and reality. “When we’re stressed, we’re more reactive and we have less control over our actions, leading us to raise our voices and regret our actions.” If you fail at staying light and breezy, forgive yourself. “You’re not alone,” stresses Macleod. “No one is perfect, and families are fraught with frustrations.” If there’s a family free of bickering, eye rolls, terse comments, under-the-breath muttering or at least one person going to bed thinking that they could have been a bit nicer, we’d like to meet them—maybe they’d be open to being profiled on the pages of Canadian Living?