As NCDV’s CEO said in his blog here, lockdown can bring pressure to usually functionally healthy relationships and can add a heightening factor to ones already operating as abusive too.
Abusive responses, like shame, grow in the dark of secrecy, behind closed doors, behind pretense, behind what looks good and ordinary.
Abusive thinking, feeling and behaviour are usually a response to earlier trauma which is held and stored in us. This is not an excuse. It is however an explanation and one which tells us why abusive ways of being are more likely to raise their ugly heads in a lockdown situation than at any other time.
Our ways of feeling safe, even from old stuff that is no longer happening, include fight and flight.
In lockdown, we do not have the option of flight so readily available to us so our instinct to fight grows in strength and viability. It can seem, because it may be, the only option.
And the pressure on our close and intimate relationships intensifies during lockdown.
In our usual life, we see friends, we let off steam, we seek support, we get advice and love from other sources, we bleed our relational radiators in our other places so that the pressure inside the system of our home or most significant relationships stays regulated and safe.
Lockdown dysregulates us internally and inside our relationships.
A concept which I think might help you to understand what may be happening within your usually healthy and functioning relationship is an old one made by Eric Berne, the father of Transactional Analysis psychotherapy. It’s called ‘stamp collecting’. Before supermarkets had ‘points cards’, we had stamp books into which we would stick stamps given to us when we bought groceries. The more stamps we could collect and save, the higher the value of the prize we could cash them in for. We could, if we were impatient or desperate, cash in just a few for a low value prize or, if we were patient or ambitious, save up books and books of stamps and cash them in for something wonderful.
What we see in relationships usually is minor stamp collecting. The stamps are made of small wrong-doings which we collect until we have got enough to cash them in for something of importance to us in our relationship. We might see a statement like, ‘well, you have to come to my cousin’s wedding with me, after all I do for you!’, or ‘after all the meals I cook for you, I deserve to be taken out.’. These are normal, unremarkable and although we could ask more clearly for what we want and need, we’re functioning well in these ways.
But we are discussing domestic abuse here aren’t we so let’s imagine that your partner hits, pushes, laughs at or neglects you in some way and this is new for you, or that you do these things to them. I invite you to consider that they or you may have been intensively squirrelling away stamps in order to believe they or you deserve to do this, that they or you have somehow earned it.
This of course doesn’t make abusive behaviour tolerable or manageable in any way, but it explains it doesn’t it?
What I am hoping for you in sharing this is that you’ll be able to have a conversation with a new language that may go some way to help you both to understand and communicate well about this.
And, of course, to stop it.
You see, in pressure, we collect more stamps than usual. We perceive what usually doesn’t even look and feel like a stamp to be a stamp and we perceive each stamp as having more value than usual. I have worked with people who have cashed in years of unmade cups of tea for a divorce, or persistent dependency for a suicide attempt. I’ve seen violence come after the collecting of a certain number of observed furtive glances at other potential sexual partners and I’ve seen public humiliation follow a number of incidences of received private neglect.
Think about it. I know you have your own examples too.
So how do we stop the collecting of stamps under this almost intolerable pressure we are all living with?
We name the process, we talk about it, we support each other not to ‘collect stamps’ and instead we name our needs and wants and we invite collaboration with our partners in getting them met.
Of course, NCDV is here for and with you whenever you need more help than this. I hope this article has given you what you need to understand what is happening for and to you and that this understanding goes some way to stopping your relationship getting to the point where you need the help they offer.
Lucy Power, Therapeutic Coach