Several articles published recently have attempted to celebrate an upshot of the down economy: If a parent loses a job and kids have less money for movies and dinners out with friends, families may have no choice but to spend more time together.
An Associated Press feature this month offered this spin: “Cutting back means spending more time at home, giving them an opportunity to reconnect.”
But what if the confines of home lead to more than Hallmark moments? What if a couple have been forced to downsize, or if adult children return to Mom and Dad’s nest, or if a young, growing family can’t trade up to the larger house as they envisioned just a few years ago?
What happens when a cozy home starts to feel like a crowded home?
We posed the question to Stephanie Coontz, a history and family studies professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. The nonprofit, nonpartisan council consists of mental health and social work professionals nationwide as well as academics whose focus is family life.
What follows is an edited conversation on what happens to family relationships when people under one roof get too close for comfort.
Q: Do you think it’s fair to say that the confines of the home increasingly are a source of family stress?
A: It’s absolutely true, particularly for people who were doing OK before the crash. There can be a positive side in learning to cut back, learning that one can get pleasure from cooking a meal together or playing a board game together instead of going out. But it’s also true that we have developed high expectations of privacy and immediacy in our lives – that we won’t have to wait for anything, like a bathroom. That’s going to take some getting used to.
Q: Talk about the privacy issue first. What’s the solution when a larger home isn’t an option?
A: We are entering a time when public space is going to be very important – places to go out of the home without having to pay. You don’t have to be on top of one another all the time.
Q: The alternative seems to be peaceful coexistence when you are at home.
A: Parents need to know that not everything needs to be a teachable moment. Sometimes kids can just be. We also need to learn to turn things that we’ve thought of as chores – something to finish as quickly as possible or to outsource – into activities we do together.
We need to find the fun side in some of these things. You might be peeling potatoes, but the conversation you have while you’re peeling the potatoes could be special, one that you remember for years and years.
Q: It seems that so much of the tension and conflict in a household can develop slowly, incrementally, in a way that is hard to notice over time. How can families prevent small issues from becoming big blowups?
A: John Gottman, who studies marital dynamics, has a rule of thumb: Fights are inevitable. The question isn’t whether there will be a fight, but how to repair after a fight.
The most realistic expectation isn’t to think you’re not going to snap. Just remember that for every snap, you need to make sure that you extend four or five positive exchanges.
Think of it like a bank account. For every negative withdrawal, you need to make four or five positive deposits. When you’re under stress and crowded together, you need to balance your emotional budget like you would balance your checkbook.
The first thing to go when you’re under stress is the ability to tell when people are not bothering you, when they are making life easier and not harder. You need to recognize those efforts.
Q: And privacy? What if more privacy simply isn’t possible right now?
A: Privacy can be overrated. You can find ways to get alone time out in the open. You can get quiet time by simply not enveloping yourself with all the stuff that’s normally turned on in the house.