Relationship Survival: We’re in this pandemic together

Let’s rewind a couple of months for a moment: You may recall you and your partner in a different type of routine. Work may have been outside of the house for most of the day. Kids (if any) were in school for most of the day. Then, at some point in the evening, you all get together, say hello, maybe eat dinner together, talk about your day and hopefully spend some quality time together before you pass out for the night. Only to repeat the same routine the next day. Sound somewhat familiar? The point is that before this pandemic, we all seemed to have our own time and space for some part of the day. Now, let’s fast forward to present day: You and your partner (and kids, if any) are with each other all the time. Every day. For the rest of eternity, it seems. Remember any of those nature documentaries about wild animals living in captivity? You know the ones where we see these poor, trapped creatures wanting to scratch and break their way out of the cage. Hamsters are known to gnaw off their own hands, for crying out loud. Even Mother Nature tells us that we don’t like being isolated and contained.

The Challenges we face together

Even the most harmonious and committed partnerships can struggle during this time. There is an aspect of individuality and independence that seem to empower us to be equal contributors to the dynamics of our relationship. In other words, ‘As much as I love you, I have my own things too that I love and that’s what makes me and our relationship balanced‘. In knowing this, there are certain truths that we need to acknowledge when we are socially isolating with loved ones.

First, our stressors may be different. What stresses me out may not stress out my partner, and vice versa. The level of stress related to finances, job security, and job/household responsibilities can also differ. Some partners are working from home, others are laid off, others are self-employed and unable to operate their business, others are front-line workers who are facing the virus closely every day. None of this can be experienced the same.

Second, our coping strategies may differ. Some of us like to talk about our thoughts and feelings while others do not. Some of use want to vent and rant while others want to find ways to “fix” the problem. Some turn to friends and family while others keep it to themselves and their partners. Some exercise while others take bubble baths. Some play video games while others read a book. And then there’s Netflix, Amazon Prime, Crave, Disney +…that’s a different story altogether. I always say that coping strategies are like shoes: Some will fit and some will not, but the more you have, the better 🙂 Similarly, some people like sneakers while other prefer stilettos – to each their own, I say.

Third, our adjustment to this whole new way of life may be different. I have read numerous articles relating our adaptation to social distancing to the stages of grief – denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, acceptance. I have never been a prescriber to the idea of stage theories being sequential and linear. As individuals, these stages are experienced more fluidly. I can wake up accepting the fact that we cannot leave the house unless it is for essential reasons and then become angry when my grocery delivery is delayed a day, because I used to be able to jump into my car and go to the store when I ran out of cream for my tea. Now, imagine two different people (or more, yikes) in one household, all going through these stages in different sequences and strengths, with different ways of communicating. For example: Your partner may be in the acceptance stage and trying to find ways to make these changes more manageable at home but you are angry because you haven’t left the house in weeks and can’t leave. And now you are confined in your house – together.

How do we make this work together?

I’ve seen so many memes on social media and read international stories about divorce rates increasing due to the covid-19 pandemic. How can this be reassuring to anyone who may be finding it difficult with making their relationship work under these circumstances?

In my practice, I have heard many narratives of how relationships can be struggling. Let’s look at some examples:

One partner is feeling overwhelmed with the expectations that he or she is still expected to take on the majority of household responsibilities even though both partners are in the house, working from home.

One partner is feeling his or her anxiety increasing with the ongoing unpredictability of societal expectations and the spread of this virus, while the other partner is minimizing the anxiety by reminding him or her of the fact that everyone is going through the “exact same thing” or becoming defensive about his or her own efforts to make things better.

One partner is trying his or best to make things work as smoothly as possible; however, his or her partner is laid off and feeling financially stressed now that there is less income in the house, which leads to more conflict.

One partner expresses feeling sad and guilty because even though his or her partner is there all the time, he or she still feels isolated and lonely.

So, what advice am I giving my clients at this time?

First, try to be mindful of the current situation and how such a surreal experience can govern our thoughts and behaviours. Now, I am not justifying people being cruel or mean to their loved ones. But I am encouraging people to be empathetic and recognize that people experience stress in different ways. Recognize where you are at in your emotional journey and accept that your partner may be in a completely different place. If this is the case, the old adage of picking your battles serves you well here. Or if you want to be more current and go all Frozen, let it go. Whatever you prefer. Postpone the conversation until a calm resolution can be discussed rather than escalating an inevitable conflict. Also, recognizing your partner’s level of stress allows you to externalize his or her behaviour. In other words, if you can avoid taking it personally and blaming yourself for all the evil in the world and acknowledge that your partner’s stress is his or hers to own, it is essentially his or her emotion to deal with. If the show must go on and the conflict must occur, remember the importance of asserting your thoughts and feelings rather than focusing on blaming, shaming and/or guilting. Talk about how the recent changes in our lives are affecting us and when you do this, make sure you mention how it really, really sucks (yes, this is my clinical expertise and terminology).

Second, remind yourself that in unpredictable times, we have to exercise some level of flexibility. This means that roles and responsibilities may not be as concrete and rigid. I may be less busy work-wise, but if I don’t get everything on my to-do list done, oh well. I always have tomorrow because if anything is predictable at this point, it’s that we have time – and lots of it. If you feel that your partner is angry or expects you to do more than is realistic, this is where the externalization works well again (“Sorry you feel that way, but I didn’t agree to the terms of the contract you have drafted in your mind”). In other words, I am not going to own your thoughts and expectations. The urgency to do household chores today is not necessarily present anymore. And, if there is an urgency to have something done that affects both of us, well, there are two adults in the house who are perfectly capable of completing it (this is where you yell, “Not it!” as quickly as you can and run out of the room – just kidding, slowly saunter). Be kind to yourself and do what you can. Just because we are confined to the house does not mean we have to be doing something productive with every waking minute. It’s all about balance, remember?

Third, place value on self-care and personal time, even if you are in the same space. Hopefully, there is an opportunity to go into separate rooms for a bit. If this is not possible, a good pair of headphones or earbuds can do the trick. Listen to your playlist, take an extra long shower, watch your favourite movie or television show for the fourth or fifth time by yourself, read a book, go for a walk, call a friend. Do whatever you need in this time to decompress. I always encourage self-care because I consider it your time to remind yourself of your worth. In times when we may feel like we are spreading all our energy and attention across all the other roles that we may play, we have to pay attention to ourselves as well and remind ourselves of our value. This has a positive impact on our mood, perceptions, motivation, and self-confidence. Give yourself permission to do this without feeling guilty. Oh, and also allow your partner the same for self-care – just to be fair.

Fourth, just as important as self-care is quality time with your partner. Even when you have spent the entire day in each other’s space and the laundry hasn’t been folded and the sink is full of dishes and irritation has risen. Take time “outside of the problem” and focus on your relationship on a daily basis. In other words, take time to be present with one another. Watch a movie together. Put your devices away and talk to each other. Eat dinner together. Play a game. Go for a walk. Show each other some physical affection. If you want to get through this together, you have to remind yourselves of why you love each other. Gone are the days of using lack of time as an excuse.

I am not saying that doing all of these things are going to save your relationship. They may make this whole not-a-lockdown-but-feels-like-a-lockdown more manageable.

I can’t write an article like this without recognizing that social distancing restrictions have also put some people at risk. Domestic abuse continues to be an issue and many factors related to this pandemic have increased the risk for victims of abuse. We need to do our best to protect and support people we care about who may be experiencing domestic abuse. Make sure to have a safety plan or safe word that he or she can use to let you know that he or she is in danger. Check in on them as much as possible. And if you are being harmed or know of someone being harmed, do what you have to do to stay safe and call local crisis services or the police. They are all still here to help you. We all have the right to be safe and healthy and the responsibility to support one another during this time.

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