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Keeping It Together When You Can’t Be Apart

Attorney Marc Lopez recently spoke to licensed clinical social worker Jere Parker about relaxation techniques, codewords, and the challenges of living at home. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Marc Lopez
I’ve been sending Jere Parker referrals for alcohol and substance abuse evaluations for more than a decade at this point. But Mr. Parker, you’re also qualified in family cases. Am I correct about that?

Jere Parker
Yes, I have been. I was and still am, truthfully. I had several offices around town. I did domestic violence groups, I did anger groups and we also did alcohol and drug assessments and groups for that.

Marc Lopez
So right now, Indiana has been—basically, the government has said, Hey, if you can, stay at home. They’ve closed restaurants, bars, gyms. They’re really stressing only essential work. But the bottom line is, people are going to be home more with their families, spouses, kids. They’re going to be spending a lot more time than perhaps they normally would. People are working from home, trying to juggle teaching their kids with this e-learning all the schools have implemented. But I just see a lot of tensions, just even in a Facebook post. And some of them are funny, some of them are, Hey, this is going crazy already. I just wanted to reach out to you. What are some ways that families who are spending a lot of time together can help decrease tension, decrease anxiety, and just basically maximize the chances of getting along. So give me some tips that you’ve gotten from your long career.

Jere Parker
Well, I think first, people have to recognize there is a problem or there may be a problem, because people are going to be into each other’s routine and space when they have to be shut down in their domicile, in their house. So first, again, they have to recognize there’s a problem. I’m hoping that they don’t just contain it and just let it smolder and then outburst with that later. They can recognize some anger tips in the beginning, like an increased heart rate, faces flushed, muscles tense up. And at that time, they need to walk away. Always use intellect over emotion, and calm yourself with, Is this really worth it?

Now for a couple, I think what they can do when they start feeling this tension—this stress—they can sit down and ask each other—one asks, one listens—What can I do to improve this situation for the both of us? And then the other person will take their time asking, What can I do to help this situation that we’re in right now?

There’s various ways to reduce stress. Sometimes you have to just alter the situation at hand. Maybe you have to be in separate rooms for a while, instead of bumping into each other all the time and just building up that tension. People can take deep breaths—in through their nose, hold it for four or five seconds—release it slowly through their mouth, and do that four or five times in a row. The more oxygen you get into your system, the more relaxed you’re going to become. The more carbon dioxide you keep from that system or let go, is going to let you be more relaxed.

You can walk away, again, and start self-talking, Is this really worth it? Why don’t we build on the positives in our relationship instead of building on these minute little things that go on that are in the negative? People have a tendency to build on the negative, not the positive. I did relationship counseling for a number of years, and one of the things that I started out with was What seems to be the problem? And I quit doing that after 10 or so years by telling people, Let’s look at the positives in your relationship. I want to talk about those first then we’re going to look at this other issue.

Various ways people can release their tension besides your breathing—you can break your body into segments, like tightening your forehead—holding it two, three, four seconds—releasing it—doing that to your cheeks, your jaws, your neck, your shoulders. Breaking into segments, tightening the muscles as tight as possible—not to the point of getting yourself cramps—and then releasing that, and going to the next area of your body. Like from your bicep down to your forearm, to your wrist, to your hands, to your fingers. And that takes about a minute-and-a-half, because I’ve timed it, and it’s a great relaxer.

But again, talking to each other about the situation—as long as you aren’t talking emotionally, but you’re talking intellectually—How can we resolve any issues that we have right now? What can I do? What can you do in my eyes?

Marc Lopez
I love it. I mean, just—you’re listing things that I’ve done in the past. I didn’t really recognize this was to helping reduce stress—the segmented body, obviously separating from the room, but even the deep breathing—and then hearing that, I’m like, Oh yeah, those are some techniques that I’m using. I’m not saying I have a stressful family situation all the time, but that’s awesome. This is gold, Mr. Parker. Thank you so much. Any other kind of things? Anything else you can suggest that people can take away?

Jere Parker
Well, like I mentioned a second ago, when you catch yourself—not just the physical aspects that I talked about, like the increased heart rate, the flushing of the face, the tensing of the muscles—you have some thoughts or behaviors that should be recognized as your anger building up—maybe throwing something, slamming the door, or making some snide comments: Maybe if you weren’t in the same room with me, we could get along. So, just paying attention.

Another item that I think is very important—and my wife I have used this—when anger shows up, a lot of times we’ve done that for our whole lives. We’ve gotten used to acting out in that respect. Somehow, that got us what we wanted at one point in time. So what my wife and I have done, we’ve come up with a non-offensive word. Our word—as crazy as it sounds—was spinach.

When one person was doing something that aggravated the other person, the other person would immediately say spinach, and it means, Stop—we’re doing the same thing we were doing before, and it’s really detrimental to our relationship, and it just doesn’t make any sense. So using a non-offensive word to tell the partner—and you have to agree on that in advance—that will be accepted, and then we can talk about things.

Marc Lopez
I love this idea of a codeword. So when you and your spouse—if she would say spinach to you, is that just kind of like, Okay, I have to back off here?

Jere Parker
Yeah.

Marc Lopez
Explain that a little bit more. I love the idea.

Jere Parker
Well, for example, maybe you come home every day, you’re tired, and you start griping about work, griping about your boss, griping about anything. And it’s just a negative approach as soon as you walk in the door. You have to agree in advance. And maybe your partner—when they hear that, when you walk in the door and that negativity sprouts up—they can use the word spinach or whatever other non-offensive words they want to come up with. And that would tell the partner—who has already agreed in advance—that they will stop doing what they’re doing and change their behaviors. And those behaviors have been going on for 15, 20, 30, 50 years. So that is one way to interrupt it—stop it—rethink the situation, and also re-verbalize.

Marc Lopez
No, I love that, though. I’m going to incorporate that into my life. I think that’s fantastic. I’m going to do that with my spouse, and I’m going to do that with my employees—I’m going to do that with everybody! I’m going to use this code word trick. Mr. Parker, thank you so much. I really think that right now, this is so valuable when so many people are spending so much time at home. I mean, there’s just a lot of change. Routines are being changed, and people have more hats to wear—employee, teacher, spouse—and it’s just all at once. So I think this information that you provided us—I think this is gold. And thank you so much for taking the time. It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to the people listening.

Jere Parker
Thank you very much for having me, Marc. I appreciate it.