Stresses and crises cripple a couple who live and work together
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Zealand, my wife Debbie and I had a blazing row all through the night. By 4:30am, it became physical with a slap and our son Jack called the Police. It was dreadful. I was issued a protection order and I moved out of the house. The night was a culmination of so many arguments and so much pressure and so many stresses. And I just blew.
Debbie and I have owned a company for about 10 years and it was getting busier and busier. It’s good to be successful, but it was also putting a lot of pressure on us. Even as we expanded and added staff, it didn’t change the fact that we worked together and lived together, and work was taking over every part of our lives.
In late 2019 we had several crises at work on top of the day-to-day operations. Both at work and at home, all Debbie and I would do was talk about work and these crises. Tensions were always high. I had no idea how to manage our complex relationship through this whirlwind of problems.
A few months later, as COVID-19 was bearing down, everything came to a head. That horrible night happened and I moved to a rural property we own nearby. Many months later, we both agreed that each of us had played a part in the descent of our relationship. But at the time, I was the one who left the house and, as lockdown hit New Zealand, our separation began.
Life got a bit tricky because we had to live apart and we had to work together. Everyone was going into their COVID bubbles. All three of our kids were living with us at the time and one of them, Phil, worked with us. Phil came with me to live at the rural property and Debbie stayed in town with the other two kids.
While the practicalities of having to work with my wife and Phil were in the back of my mind, I knew we needed space and I needed a break. It was nice to have Phil with me to keep me company and we definitely bonded. Our daughter visited me on Tuesdays, so we had some family structure. I also took time away from work for several weeks. I relished the time to myself to reflect on every part of my life.
During this time I connected with RISE (formerly SVS – Living Safe) as mandated. I reached out in the pandemic and naturally everyone was working from home, so I talked by phone with Michiel who is based in Motueka. It was really, really good. I poured out all of my worries and someone just listened. Just talking to him was such a relief. During lockdown we spoke three times each week and then we were able to meet after everyone returned to the office in Level 2.
Over the 10 mandated weeks, Michiel talked to me about many different strategies I could use to manage my stress and anger. Like a volcano, I could visualise how I would get more and more wound up until I was steaming. Michiel showed me the 1-10 scale and how to identify where I was on it. The simplest and most effective trick is to take a breather, get out for awhile to calm down. I’ve never done that. I have always soldiered on.
Now, I leave and get a cup of coffee. The stresses are still there, but I now see them coming. I can do something to calm them rather than elevate them. When a known irritant is in front of me, like a computer that crashes inexplicably, I step away rather than doggedly pushing through. Taking tasks in chunks is the smart way to manage them.
Michiel and I also talked about communicating with your partner. I learned that when I say something, Debbie or either of my kids or my staff might not understand what I’m saying in the same way I mean it. This can also happen in reverse too. We both need to ensure that what we are saying is understood by the other person.
As the mandated time came to an end, lockdown continued and Debbie and I continued living apart. She visited me at weekends and we talked on the phone about work during the week as needed. All of the management of the business fell on her shoulders for a time, and I’m proud of the way she handled it during the lockdown.
After several weeks, I started coming into work three days a week. Already, I could tell the time I had with Debbie at work was different. Before, it had felt like we were cell mates in a prison more than man and wife. Now, we could spend time together without arguing. I could tell that the separation had been good for her as well. She was doing individual counselling too. After re-integrating at work for a few weeks, we also spent time together outside of work on the weekends.
Eventually, we decided to do add couple’s counselling to our individual counselling. Counsellors are not part of my culture or my upbringing. I always tried to work things out on my own. But that only led me to find myself in an intractable situation with my wife, and it was too hard to work things out from the inside. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
I’m pleased we now have the help we need. I went to RISE for Debbie and for my family. I learned so much and I’ve been putting it into practice. It has paid off. Last Christmas, I moved back into the house with Debbie and our kids. The time apart working individually and the joint counselling has helped us both learn skills to manage all of the hats we wear in our multifaceted relationship.
*Names have been changed to protect those involved.