Using DEAR MAN to Guide Difficult Family Interactions in COVID-19.


September 18, 2020

Written by: Melissa Goldberg, Psy.D

COVID-19 has been tough on our family relationships.  Whether it’s a mother-to-be feeling anxious about grandparents wanting to fly in to meet a newborn grandchild, a diabetic brother feeling fearful of interactions with his bar-hopping younger sister, or an adult child feeling fed up with their parents’ intense monitoring of their social lives, navigating boundary setting with family members who may have different ideas about covid-19 safety precautions is undoubtedly challenging.  When patients bring this type of conflict up in a therapy session, I have found that the skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy can provide a significant resource in helping move through these issues.

Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a therapy modality made up of four modules that can help people learn to lead more skillful lives.  One of these modules, called Interpersonal Effectiveness, might be especially useful in navigating these conflicts.  Linehan posits that it is helpful to evaluate your priorities when in a conflict.  Do you most want to come out of the disagreement maintaining your self-respect?  Is it more important in this particular conflict to maintain your relationship with the other person?  Or perhaps you want to simply get your objective met, without doing too much damage to your relationship?  While DBT offers resources and support for all of these objectives, I would like to share a technique that really helps support getting your objective met, while minimizing the damage to the relationship.

The technique to balance this priority utilizes the acronym DEAR MAN, and its goal is to help you ask for something while still holding your relationship in mind.  Consider the example of the soon-to-be new mother asking for something from her parents.

The D in DEAR MAN stands for Describe the situation.  In doing so, you want to just state the facts.  This might look like, “I am about to have my first baby and your first grandchild during a global pandemic, and you have expressed your desire to be here for the birth.”

The E stands for Express, which means express how you’re feeling.  For example, “I am feeling a little bit nervous about germs you might be exposed to on the plane, and am feeling protective over the baby.”

A stands for Assert: it’s time to ask for what you want.  “I would like you to fly in before the baby’s birth, so you can quarantine and isolate for two weeks, if you want to be here when the baby is a newborn.” Make sure to be clear, don’t leave any room for misunderstanding.

R stands for Reinforce the relationship.  “I really want you to be a part of the baby’s life because you are so important to us.”

M stands for be Mindful.  Try to refrain from worrying about a past mistake or future slip up, and be in the moment.  This also means staying away from your cell and other distractions while you are having this important conversation.

A stands for Appear confident.  Make eye contact to show that you are taking this seriously.

N stands for Negotiate.  Perhaps it’s not feasible for the grandparents to fly in early, but might they be open to driving instead of flying?  Or perhaps they could meet the baby when the little one is a bit older?

Through using the DEAR MAN acronym, you can work to diffuse the sorts of fights that have been brewing across the country, compounding the stress and pain we have been feeling from the pandemic.


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