When Change Turns Violent

Sometimes change creeps in so slowly you hardly notice until it’s finished – like wildflowers that bloom after a soft spring rain. Sometimes change crashes in like a summer thunderstorm in Dallas – torrents of rain, flood warnings on your phone every ten minutes, followed by blackouts.

Or like the conflicts between an adult child and an elderly parent who refuses to admit that it’s time to change.

It’s been a big year for that in our house. In addition to dealing with my mom, we’ve been trying to persuade the in-laws (ages 88 and 90) to stop living on their own in Florida and move in with my sister-in-law (SIL). My father-in-law (FIL) is amenable – after yet another health-scare that put my mother-in-law (MIL) in the hospital last year, he was ready to sell the house and move to Pittsburgh. She, however, refuses to admit that things are changing for her.

In her mind, she still exercises regularly, visits her friends, attends church, and enjoys sitting in the sun. In truth, her orbit has increasingly over the past few years been limited to bed, bathroom, chair in front of TV, with occasional hospital stays. At 90 she’s entitled but this pattern requires her husband’s assistance at a level that is unhealthy for him. In addition, her children were having to take time off to fly to Florida every time she got sick, with predictable effects on family and profession.

The discussions about change have been, at times, emotionally violent. Partially because my FIL is so deaf that it’s not funny and, if you want to have a phone conversation with him, you have to really YELL. You’ve heard that smiling can put you in a good mood? I believe that yelling at someone immediately raises your blood pressure. Even if you start out the conversation in a good mood, yelling at someone who still mishears you puts you in a bad mood. My MIL’s hearing is better but, given her resistance to the whole idea of change, she’s an unreliable interpreter.

Case in point: all three of the children and a generous niece visited separately to help them plan for this move, and they hired a stager locally to help them sort and either pack the things that they want to keep or haul away the things that they don’t need to bring. Logistically speaking, the family was unable to cover all the pre-move packing time, so the parents have been working alone with the stager for the last month. In a nutshell, here’s how recent conversations went:

SIL: The stager says you’ve used up the 200 boxes she allocated for your move. What are you packing? Remember you have less space here, you may need to be more selective about what you bring.

MIL: If you won’t let me bring the things that are important to me, we’ll leave them here and keep the house and come back to visit our things. We would drive back and spend winters here.

SIL: Ok, bring all the things that are important to you, and we’ll sort it out when you get here.

MIL (to FIL): She says we can bring everything. There are good things in that Goodwill pile – pack those up and let’s bring those, too.

At current count, they’ve exceeded 400 boxes.

To get the true sense of this (we’ll call it a) discussion, you have to imagine nightly phone calls, yelling (because of deafness and because of frustration), escalating demands, weeping, arguing, parents hanging up on children, siblings calling each other to share their worries, follow-up phone calls from siblings to calm the waters, so many group texts that I had to mute my text-alert so I could get work done during the day, and eventually concessions that make no one happy.

My husband keeps wondering why his parents don’t do what’s logical. But it’s not a logical decision for my MIL. Change has been sneaking up on her over the last few years and she’s been unwilling to see it. Now she’s being confronted with it all at once and her limbic brain is reacting to that threat with all the force it can muster. My poor FIL, who is the more cerebral of the two, is also thinking with his heart because, god bless him, he’s still so much in love with his wife and hates the idea of seeing her sad. And the children are thinking with fear – fear that something horrible will happen to their parents before they can get them safely moved (and, in my SIL’s case, fear that her parents are bringing the full contents of their 3-bedroom house to her home and she’ll be forced to live with the results of 20 years of hoarding).

Violent change.

So what do you do when change turns violent?

One of the best examples I can think of happened in a workshop at work led by an outside consultant. I don’t remember what the consultant said that pushed my button, but my reaction was verbally violent. I may have shoved my chair back from the table and I’m sure I was rude. There was a little pause of shocked silence.

Then he said, very gently, “Wow, where I come from, we don’t usually talk to people like that.”

His gentle tone restarted my emotional intelligence and made me realize how out of line I had been. “We don’t usually talk like that to people here either,” I replied contritely. “I’m sorry. That was out of line.”

Then he helped me figure out what I needed to get through the change and we went on.

The combination of his gentle, unemotional tone and the fact that he called me on my unreasonableness of my reaction was enough for me. But what do you do when that’s not enough?

Here’s what I learned from him:

  • Remain calm.
    Don’t let them pull you into their frame of reference (emotionally charged). In the example above, the instructor didn’t feel he had to yell at me, and in fact, took a gentle approach.
  • Demonstrate recognition of their feelings.
    My instructor did it with one word: “Wow.” That word conveyed, “Wow, you’re really upset, I hear it.”
  • Set boundaries.
    The instructor who didn’t let me get away with rude behavior, even though he recognized my position.

This one experience, which happened more than 15 years ago and lasted less than 60 seconds, taught me not only about myself but about handling violent reactions to change.

Lessons that are coming in very handy this year.

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