Meanwhile, I have a friend who is in a very high-drama family situation.
Arguing. Strong emotion. Threats.
It occurs to me that my advice to my friend is exactly the same as the advice to home-owners that the fire department gives out when they talk about maintaining “defensible space”. They recommend that you clear dead plants, remove dried leaves, and leave some space between things.
You might not be able to stop a wildfire, but you might be able to slow it down, or stop it from spreading.
My friend who is in this high-drama situation is very focused on the other person, and the problems in the relationship. Understandably!
But basically they are running straight at the fire and adding more fuel. It's exactly what I did when I was trying to “save” my marriage. Looking back, I wish I had thought more about clearing my own defensible space.
What does that look like? Here’s my list.
Take a break.
Separate, but for a specified time.
Storming out can be better than staying, for both of you, but people have abandonment issues and just leaving without saying you are coming back, or threatening never to come back can be triggering and even cruel. Better to say, "I’ll be back in an hour," or "two," or "tomorrow," or if you truly don't know, say, “I need to go now. I don’t know what time, but I will be back.”
Talk to someone outside of the situation.
People often say talk to a friend or therapist, but even a chat with the barista at Starbucks can help get you out of the tornado. And sometimes a “friend”, or even an unskillful therapist can actually throw fuel on the fire by “taking your side.” Remember your goal, to get out of the violent cycle of drama.
Talking about mundane things with someone outside the situation may even be better than getting into the difficult material right away, even with a friend or therapist. Do that, yes, but after you have cooled the fires.
Maintain your own house.
What in your life has become neglected because of this drama? Are you eating well? Getting enough rest? Cleaning your bathroom? Going to the dentist? Going for coffee with a friend? Doing that errand you'd like to have over with? Doing that task that would be fun, but just didn't feel important enough to pull you away from the fight?
Never: keep going at the problem.
Remember, we are not fighting a fire. We are creating an environment that has the potential to cool down a conflict so we can deal with it appropriately.
Never: discuss (fight about) anything difficult or serious when you are HUNGRY, ANGRY, LONELY, or TIRED.
Remember the acronym H.A.L.T.
That means stop, and take care of basic needs. My rules for these discussions include,
Never before a meal.
Never before a deadline (someone has to leave for work, school, appointment.)
Never after sunset. (I mean never.)
Never use the outside world as a weapon.
A friend (or social media) who helps to throw fuel on your anger is not acting as a friend. Likewise, if you are out in the world trying to get everybody on your side, guess what, you’re still in the fight. Remember, your goal is to get out of the fight, so try not to take it with you.
Never: tear down someone else’s house.
If someone is maintaining their house, (as seen on the "always" list) don’t stop them to drag them back into the fight. If they are taking care of a basic need, getting ready for work, eating, or clearing their defensible space and you insist that instead they come back into the fight with you, you are working against your objective to cool down the fight.
I understand that if someone you are in conflict with walks away from you, or goes to do something on their own self-care list, it might seem as if they don't care about you. But if you are acting in opposition to someone caring for themselves, then you are sort of casting yourself as their enemy, and that will keep the fight going.
Think about calming down as its own valuable goal.
If you think, “but, but, but this is a real problem we have to deal with!” I agree. But deal with it how? When? Haven’t you already tried going at it this way? Is it helping?
So calm down.
Cool your jets.
Take a deep breath.
Go for a walk in nature.
Do something good for yourself or that needs doing that you've been putting off.
Remember, the momentum favors the drama.
That is human instinct. We are evolved to deal with intense, dangerous situations that need to be solved NOW! But most, if not all, family difficulties are best dealt with later. When everyone is fed. Rested. Hydrated. And when everybody knows that they have done everything they can to clear their own, defenisible space.
No, you can't do anything about the piles of crap on your neighbor's side of the fence. But even so, it's a really good feeling to have your own space cleared.
Then you have room to stand. To breathe. And to be ready for whatever comes next.