By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
Whatever your particular struggles, you may come to a point when you begin to question your way of coping – or even recognize that it’s working against you. This can become especially clear when you are either chronically unhappy or your relationship is in trouble. Unfortunately, you may still not know exactly what you are doing wrong or what you should change.
At these times, it is helpful to know that there are only three basic approaches to coping. Although you can use them in ways that work against you, you can also choose to use them more effectively:
Acceptance: You accept things as they are.
When you “accept” things in an unhealthy way, you are not really accepting them. For instance, you might “accept” that your spouse is a slob. But this is not genuine if you are stewing about how he leaves a mess all over.
You can benefit from accepting all situations – in other words, acknowledging that they exist. That said, when you accept the present as it is, you might still want to change something in the future. It is particularly important to learn to truly accept situations you cannot change, such as a partner’s previous affair (which is now definitely over) or their need for a lot of alone time. Many people find acceptance by reflecting on current and past experiences, talking the situation through with a supportive person, and by talking positively to themselves. In working to accept a situation, you might learn to:
- Think more positively about it (e.g. look at the situation as an opportunity)
- Find ways to relieve your stress (e.g. exercise, meditate)
- Change how you respond (e.g. use clear communication, seek advice rather than responding impulsively)
Alteration: You alter (or change) a situation.
People sometimes change their situation for the worse when they are unhappy. One very common example of this is when married people have an affair.
When a situation is something you can control or influence, it can be very helpful to alter it in a constructive way. One way is to alter your behavior. For instance, you might ask your spouse to talk with you when they come home from work rather than just watch TV. Or, you can alter your expectations. For instance, you might allow your spouse time to decompress after work before expecting them to engage more with you.
Avoidance: You avoid thoughts, feelings, people or situations that cause you stress.
People sometimes create worse problems for themselves by avoiding certain situations. For instance, couples might have an unsatisfactory sex life, but avoid discussing it because talking would be too uncomfortable. The result is that they remain unhappy in that area of their marriage, and might also find that this unhappiness spreads outside the bedroom.
Other situations are helped with a little avoidance. This might include staying away from someone who bothers you, taking a break from your partner when they upset you (as long as you return later when you are calmer to talk about the issue), avoiding taking on particular roles or jobs, or not discussing particular topics. Usually, in your intimate relationships, avoidance is best use as a temporary measure in a situation that you later find a way to accept or alter.
When you are struggling with any situation, think about the outcome that you want (given the reality of the situation). Then consider the particular ways of coping that you are using. Are they constructive? Or do they make your situation worse? Finally, consider how you might accept, alter, or avoid your situation to improve it and nurture a happier life.
If you would like to join a general discussion about this topic on the Relationships and Coping Community, click here.