Copyright © 2016, Liz Currin, Ph.D.
When we think of change, we generally think of it as a good thing. Change your hairstyle, lose weight, move to a new home, get a new job, buy a new car, the list is only as limited as your imagination. In this culture, we value change and tend to view it as something positive. And it very often is.
After all, who doesn't anticipate the birth of a baby? What's not to like about getting a promotion at work? And what about being awarded that long-awaited college degree? Or, becoming engaged to the love of your life?
All exciting life changes, right? Of course, there are other life changes that aren't positive. For example, loss of a parent or other relative; loss of a job and income; foreclosure on a home; a child's illness. Again, the list goes on and on.
The Holmes Rahe Social Readjustment Scale, commonly referred to as the “stress scale,” points out that both positive and negative life events can increase the amount of stress in our lives. It's not hard to see how the death of a loved one, a divorce, unemployment, can add to the stress we experience. It may seem counterintuitive, however, that a joyous occasion, like a new baby, a new home, a job promotion, graduating from college, can also cause stress. For instance, while death of a spouse is understandably rated as most stressful, marriage and marital reconciliation are ranked and 7th and 9th in terms of stress. Even retirement, which many of us claim to eagerly anticipate, or a major personal achievement, can raise our stress level. And the point of the scale and the research which supports it is that stress puts us at higher risk for both physical illness and emotional distress.
It's important to consider how both positive and negative life events present us with challenges. So, let's look at a few examples. Your child is accepted at an outstanding college or university and will be living on campus. You're excited for him and proud of the effort it took for him to accomplish this milestone. But this is his first time living away from home and his parents. Will he get to his classes on time? Study and carry out his assignments? Be responsible in his choice of friends and activities (for example, avoiding excessive alcohol use?) Or will he flounder socially or academically, or both?
Or, you get a significant promotion in your job—higher salary, but also increased responsibilities. Perhaps you are now traveling more for work, let's say two to three days a week, including overnight stays. Your spouse must now pick up what you used to do at home or with the children when you were at home. And there's the issue of being separated from each other on those days and nights. For many who travel frequently on business, there's the loneliness of being away from family. And there may be other people in your group who act as a negative influence, perhaps encouraging excessive drinking or trips to strip clubs.
Let's say you decide to go back to school, to obtain a degree in nursing, for example. You look forward to a new professional identity, level of competence, and perhaps fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Your family is proud of you and excited for you.
At some point, the reality of your decision and its impact on your family sets in. Depending on your lifestyle prior to nursing school, new arrangements will need to be made regarding a whole array of activities. Grocery shopping and meal preparation, housecleaning and routine maintenance, transporting children to and from school and extracurricular activities, family recreation time (after all, mom or dad now has homework to do!), and so on.
This positive development in your life will likely require that you and your spouse/partner sit down, first with each other, and then with other family members, to outline how changes will be managed. You may need to work out a new “division of labor”. In other words, who will take on which chores and when? Does a spouse need to adjust work hours in order to take children to soccer, for example? Do children need to take on more responsibility around the house, for example, feeding a pet, setting and clearing the table, meal preparation (as appropriate for the child's age), laundry, and so on.
The same model can be applied to a whole range of life changes—a new job, school, a new baby, divorce, remarriage, an aging parent, illness in the family, etc. The bottom line is that these life changes—both positive and negative--can seem overwhelming, but can be successfully managed with some thought and planning and cooperation within the family.