Relationships During Times of Stress- III

I’ve mixed feelings about the idea of ‘stages’ in psychology.  A whole world seemed to open up when Elisabeth Kübler-Ross presented her book- On Death and Dying.  At last a road map on the pain around death.  She postulated a five stages of grief model: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance.  The thing became so popular it was a adopted as a framework in a movie about the choreographer, Bob Fosse (All That Jazz, 1979).  Even though I liked the guideposts, I had doubts.  They didn’t seem to match up with my experience around my father’s death when I was twelve.  All I remember was a long tunnel filled with a dark fog.  And from there, those five, in no particular order, and a few more…Then, of course, I felt some shame that my grief didn’t match up with the way I was supposed to feel things.

The argument about the power of cycles and stages is a big deal in Western philosophy, goes back to Classical Greece.*

In the first essay on the Pandemic I spoke of the stages of a community response to a natural disaster—Shock, Heroic, Honeymoon, Disillusionment. Right now, I’m trying to figure out where we are. And, figure where I am on the individual’s reaction to stress stages—Alarm, Resistance, Exhaustion.  There is also the stages of a First Responder’s career— Heroic, Cynical, Resilient.  These all seem pretty close to how it works, but they are not necessarily sequential.  They are not for everybody.  Gender, culture, class, and many other things play into this.  We are not locked into these sequential stages. 

In the discussion on roles, I ended up with— there are powerful pulls toward being a certain way (genetic, class, culture, history), they might even go from the possible to the probable, but they are not mandated.

Given the urgency of the pandemic and the social crisis, many families have had to re-form themselves without the outlet of schools, friends, couple date nights, etc.  First responders, work groups, and roommates the same.  This creates increased intensity. Pressure cooker city. There will be meltdowns.

So let’s take a look at Stages of Group Developement in this time of Covid and social crisis.  Again, these are ‘tendencies,’ not absolutes.

 The classic social psychology work on group development suggests several stages:  Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning.  In each stage, various roles come into play such as Leader, Follower; Counter-dependent, Dependent, Independent, etc. 

Group Stages:

Forming:  Folks are unclear on what the goals are, what the roles are, who are the leaders, what the boundaries are.  There can be poor morale, poor listening, and low commitment.

Storming: Emotions that were disregarded at the beginning surface.  Arguments about boundaries, leadership, and power are abundant.    Cohesion and consistency are low while anger, resentments, and power struggles ascendant.

Norming: coming out of the conflict of the Storming Phase, members move toward ‘rules of the road.’  This is the way we do things.  Folks increasingly listen to and take each other into consideration.  Leadership issues, while not necessarily solved, are calmed.  Assertiveness is rewarded.

Performing:  After the earlier struggles, Folks relax into taking care of business.  Tasks tend to be less fraught with power issues.  There is increased creativity, openness, flexibility and pride in the group. 

Adjourning: The crisis looses its urgency and the intensity of the pandemic and social /cultural crisis decreases, folks return to the world.  Here there is a sense of loss, and hopefully, a sense of respect for their history together as well as respect for lessons learned.

There is a great hope in both role and group development models.  The roles we have become attached to are in fact flexible and can be dropped like a three day old halibut.   What seems like an intractable unproductive family, work group, is best seen as a thing in transition.  It is helpful to name the stage. This is especially true now in this time of monumental global change.

So today, I’d say I am in the Disillusioned, Exhausted, Group Storming stage, with a touch of Acceptance. Mañana? I’m planning on the Group Performing and Resilience Stages. We’ll see…

We are not stuck. This may be good time to take a look at the role you play, the stage your family, roommates, work group might be in.  Where do you want it to go?  What role do you want to play?  What do you need?

Step back and take a look.

Go easy, folks.


* In Western philosophy, the argument about stages goes back to Plato.  He theorized there were several forms of societies that evolved from each other, tyranny, meritocracy, democracy, etc., ending in rule by the Philosopher King (presumably him and his buddies).  That stage idea went even further in the cycles of history theories of Giambatistta Vico (Theocratic->Aristocratic->Democratic, then Chaos leading back to the first). Karl Marx’s stages of society ends in a classless and free society.  Sure, right. Arguments against these political deterministic cycles of history were led by Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies).   Camus also weighed in for freedom from stages in his arguments with Sartre about Marxism. 

I guess I am with that great Marxist, Groucho, who proclaimed— “Be open minded, but not so open minded that your brains fall out.”