“Expect the best, but plan for the worst” is advice you’ve probably given your clients for years. But what happens when the worst is worse than their most awful fears?
For many people in the Northeast, the deadly storm surge of 90-mph Hurricane Sandy and the nor’easter in its aftermath exceeded all expectations of hardship and sacrifice. Dozens died, hundreds lost their homes, and millions were left in the cold and dark.
At times of trauma like this, people tend to revert to their primitive survival mode. If your clients have been suffering from similar loss and damage of any kind, here are some suggestions on how to handle unusual behavior that may spring from their storm urges.
A client couple I work with has been struggling diligently to pay off debt they incurred when their child needed surgery. Last August, the wife was so moved by the suffering of Hurricane Isaac victims that she put a big donation to the Red Cross on her credit card. Although her husband feels bad for the victims, he is livid at her spontaneous decision. She is upset and resents his attitude. How can I help them get back on track financially and emotionally?
Stress and trauma often cause both partners in a relationship to stop communicating well. To navigate the intense emotions the wife’s gift has aroused, I would suggest that you meet with her and her husband separately, perhaps with the support of a psychotherapist or coach.
In addition to feeling betrayed by his spouse’s unilateral decision-making, the husband probably has a sense of being abandoned because she put caring for strangers over her own family’s well-being. I would not be surprised if he also feels guilty, at least to some extent, for being angry with her generosity.
You may find that the wife feels survivor guilt and simply wanted to help any way she could. Her decision to donate perhaps more than they could afford was made while she was in her primitive-survival stress mode. In other words, she wasn’t calm or rational enough to think how her choice might affect the family’s financial stability.
From a practical standpoint, you could also gently mention the downside of putting a charitable contribution on a credit card. As I was reminded by my friend Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com, “While the donation is going to help hurricane victims, the interest these clients pay will just go to the bank. It might be helpful for her to understand that once their old medical debt is paid off, she’ll be able to give more to the causes she believes in.”
Try to focus on empathizing with each partner’s perspective. If you can help them gradually open up to each other’s feelings and show them how to repair the damage to their finances, I wager they will be able to rebuild their connection and move forward as a couple.
A client of mine was so alarmed by Hurricane Sandy that he bought a $6,000 standby generator. His wife wasn’t happy about the cost, but agreed that it would be important to have power if the electricity failed. However, the storm surge was so massive that it reached their home and destroyed the generator. While there was some damage to the house, his wife only seems to care about the generator. What would you advise to help mend fences between them?
A few sessions with a good therapist would help this couple share their deep feelings: her anger, disappointment and anxiety; and his shame and humiliation about having made an expensive decision that ended badly.
If they won’t seek this kind of counseling and you’re willing to be a true “therapeutic educator,” you might step in. I’d begin by sitting down with each of them individually, so they can air their feelings without becoming defensive in their mate’s presence. Then I’d get them both together to see if you can help them build a bridge back to one another.
Remind them that a trauma like the imminent arrival of a deadly storm will put most people into their stress mode, which is at least somewhat dysfunctional. The wife feels upset by having wasted so much money on top of the other losses and peace of mind that they suffered. Her husband’s impulse to buy the generator came from his deep desire, as the family “hunter” and provider, to protect his loved ones. Of course hindsight is 20-20, but the wife would surely agree that there’s no way he could have predicted what happened.