Our greatest joys and greatest sorrows often arrive in the context of our close relationships. When we look back over our lives, we remember the people we loved and our intimate times with them, as well as the losses, the conflicts, and those who drifted away.
In my book The Power of Women, I show you how women can harness their tremendous mental and interpersonal strengths to fortify their relationships and enrich their lives. Let me illustrate how one woman, Kirsten, overcame a threat to her marriage and her quality of life.
Like many couples nowadays, Kirsten and Greg found themselves staring down a foreclosure on the little bungalow they had bought in Sacramento, California. They had let themselves get talked into a sub-prime mortgage with an adjustable interest rate. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Though they were young and just starting out in their careers, they had both already been quickly promoted and fully expected that they would see another leap in their salaries before any interest rate change kicked in. But just as their mortgage payments ballooned, Greg lost his job as the manager of a local vegetable farm. He became despondent, but Kirsten refused to give up. She called their bank and when she didn't get much help there, she called a local agency that helped people refinance their houses. Greg was sure they couldn't get any help because he was unemployed, but Kirsten persisted, working out a plan with the agency's financial counselor to get their mortgage payments down considerably. 7 Tips For Living With The Unemployed
Greg had put minimal work into the effort, again voicing pessimism that there weren't any jobs to be had in the economic downturn. Kirsten, however, scoured Craigslist everyday for employment opportunities and dragged Greg to an unemployment workshop that was run by their local synagogue. Within a month he had landed work with the state park service. The job didn't pay as well as his job as a farm manager, yet between Greg's paycheck and Kirsten's, they were able to afford their renegotiated mortgage. Step-By-Step Guide To Having The Money Talk
Women like Kirsten have extraordinary strengths that they bring to stressful times, like our current economic crisis. As I document in The Power of Women, these strengths fall into four categories.
1. Women have mental strengths, a flexibility that allows them to be creative and nimble in finding solutions to problems. Although Greg couldn't see any way out of their financial mess, Kirsten stayed optimistic and found a way to renegotiate their mortgage; then she creatively found Greg a new job.
2. Women have identity strengths that allow them to maintain a strong sense of themselves and their values in whatever situations they find themselves. They can deal with change and uncertainty because their sense of themselves isn't dependent on what they do or have, but who they are. When Greg lost his job, he lost part of his identity and became despondent; Kirsten saw the situation simply as a problem to be solved.
3. Women have emotional strengths—the ability to understand their own feelings and those of others, and to use this understanding to cope in life and make major decisions. Of course Kirsten was worried about their financial situation, but she used it as a motivation to find solutions rather than as an excuse for withdrawal.
4. Women have tremendous relational strengths in connecting with other people. By creating strong social networks that support them during stressful times, they also inspire others to give their very best and to work toward a common good. Kirsten's connection with her religious community gave her great support and concrete help in her time of need.
Women's strengths help them to weather even the most devastating losses. In my research on bereavement, I've constantly been amazed at how many women don't just "get through" the loss of a loved one, but they find ways to grow personally in the midst of grief. As Nora, a 46-year-old whose husband died of cancer, said, "Even on a day-to-day basis right now, I feel a lot stronger and a lot more capable of dealing with life in general and the sadness. Life is joyous and life is sad. Instead of getting depressed and overwhelmed by its sadness, I'm able to put it in what for me is its proper perspective." Marrying An Older Man Meant Widowhood at 34
Men clearly have many strengths at coping with stress. For instance, men are socialized to take charge of a situation and advise others on problem-solving; still, relationships are complex and relationship problems don't always have immediate solutions.
When it comes to long-term coping, how can you build strengths to deal more effectively with stress in your life and your relationships? I give dozens of specific exercises in The Power of Women. Here are a few examples that both women and men can use:
• Learn to See The Many Paths to Your Goal.
Identify obstacles to your goals, breaking them down into their smallest parts. Then generate small steps to get around each part and move steadily toward your goal.
• Learn to Be Optimistic.
Overcome pessimism by identifying the negative thoughts that feed discouragement when you're having trouble reaching a goal. Write your negative thoughts on cards—then destroy the cards or write motivational counterstatements for each one. Is Positive Thinking Sabotaging Your Love Life?
• Learn to Tolerate Distress.
When you begin to feel upset, or if you are fully engulfed by distress, stop, shut your eyes and draw in a long, deep breath. Hold it for two to three seconds. Then exhale slowly and completely, letting your shoulders and jaw drop. Feel the relaxation flow into your arms and hands. Repeat this several times.
• Learn to Be More Patient.
If you are impatient because you feel there is much to do, make a list of your obligations, activities, etc., then rank order them. Generate ways of eliminating the low priority ones so you feel less rushed. Reflect on your expectations for how quickly things need to get done and how many things you should be doing. Cut back as possible.
Having close relationships is critical to our emotional and physical health. How do you strengthen your relationships?