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It was a day like many others in the life of Sandra Jones: up at barely five o'clock; start the coffee; quick shower; wake, dress and feed the baby; wake Tommy and James and tell them the bus will be there soon; wake and hold her screaming toddler who does not like being awakened, then dress and feed her; wake her husband, Bill, who decidedly isn't a 'morning person'; shout at Tommy and James, threatening mayhem, destruction, withdrawal of privileges and any number of failures in life if they don't, in fact, 'get moving!'; kiss the air next to her husband who is now leaving for work; load her ill-tempered children into her ancient car only to find the battery dead again; call a neighbor for a jumpstart; drop Tommy and James off at school and the little ones at day care; and finally speed to her own job, yelling at 'thoughtless' drivers along the way.
Sandra's only break of the day was filled with phone calls: the bank, whose recent balance did not match hers, thus the bounced check; the electrician, who had promised to install her new dishwasher; the trash collector, who had missed the pickup. Unfortunately, the bank's computers were down, so she couldn't straighten out the mistake on her last statement. For what seemed like the hundredth time she could reach only the electrician's answering machine. The waste-management company said that 'according to their computer,' her garbage had, in fact, been picked up.
At two o'clock, Sandra received a call from the school that James had sprained his ankle on the playground. Taking the time off work that she could ill afford, she drove at breakneck speed to the emergency room where she held her crying child while attempting to answer questions regarding her insurance and signing papers assuring that she would pay the bill. She then waited with her son for two hours, frantically trying to soothe James, then running to the pay phone to tell her husband to pick up the other children.
Later that night, after much screaming at the children to 'go to sleep,' tripping countless times over the new dishwasher that wasn't installed, listening to Bill's curses at bills that he was attempting to pay with too little money, she and Bill had what had become their nightly fight about who did more and how unappreciated each felt, blaming each other for the problems in their marriage. At last, in complete frustration, Sandra began throwing things at Bill, mostly objects he had carelessly left around the house rather than put away. 'Living with you is like having another child,' she screamed, as she hurled his shoes that had been in the middle of the floor at him. For his part, Bill again threatened that he wasn't sure how much more he could take, as he proclaimed that Sandra was 'not the easygoing, fun-loving woman' he had once loved.
Learned helplessness is a major factor in marital conflict, rage and depression. It is the sense that you have little control over your environment, and the actions you take on your own behalf don't seem to make a difference. Sandra and Bill, like millions of people today, are trying to parent, work at their jobs and handle the stresses of day-today living with too little time, energy and support. The job of raising a family at one time was shared by extended familySandra's lack of extended support and her stress in dealing with computers and answering machines compound her feelings of helplessness and frustration.
Many people tell us that their lives feel out of their own control. One man we encountered actually kicked a bank machine. When he realized he had been seen he replied, 'I know I just made a fool of myself, but it doesn't seem to matter what I do anymore. Computers are in control. Have you ever tried to talk to a computerized voice? What I do doesn't seem to make a difference.'
Runaway technology, lack of support, feelings of isolation, increased psychological stress, financial pressure, and a perceived chasm between rule-makers and the people they govern can, at least in part, account for increasing symptoms of unhealthy anger in our society. What is certain is that the link between anger, depression and learned helplessnessand the increase in all threeis becoming more obvious.
Once Sandra and Bill began to understand that their unhappiness was a result of their circumstances rather than their lack of love and commitment to each other, they began to find ways, within their means, of reconnecting. Sandra arranged to trade baby-sitting duties with another mother, so that she and Bill could rejoin the bowling league where they had met. Bill checked into his company's tuition-reimbursement program and discovered that they would pay for him to complete his accounting degree. He entered school and is looking forward to the time when his new degree will earn him a promotion and a raise. Sandra and Bill also decided to allot an hour after dinner one night a week, with no TV, to enjoy quiet time as a family and share what's going on in each other's lives. While they have not solved all their problems or eliminated feelings of helplessness from their lives, they are beginning to feel more in control. The 'down-time' that they've programmed into their schedule makes it easier to handle the stressful times without completely 'losing it.'
©2004. All rights reserved. Jane Middelton-Moz, M.S., Lisa Tener, M.S., Peaco Todd, M.A. Reprinted from The Ultimate Guide to Transforming Anger: Dynamic Tools for Healthy Relationships. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc.,
3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.