How to Survive Relationship Stress During Quarantine
How to cope with marital stressors and protect your children.
Posted Sep 01, 2020
Naomi (all names changed) told me, “I can’t stand being in the same room with him for one more minute! Before COVID we saw each other a little in the morning, and then not till dinner time. On the weekends we hung out with our kids, or friends, or went to movies or parties. Since COVID we have been cooped up in the house with our kids, and I feel like I am losing my mind!”
When the “shelter in place” order was given, no one expected that in September many of us would still be quarantined. No one could have predicted the job losses, the fear of the virus, the need to homeschool our kids, or the many other stressors we now face every day. It is a tsunami of stresses. Loss of income, isolation, boredom, grief at the loss of loved ones, and having to work from home while homeschooling the kids.
We are struggling to create new routines at home with the kids. We are scraping the bottom of the resilience barrel. Nora told me, “We can’t get to the gym for stress relief, and we can’t seem to agree on chores or when one of us might get a break.”
All this togetherness has brought, for some people, the “quality time” that was missing before. For others, too much togetherness has made them more irritable, more anxious, stressed, and sometimes aggressive. The home has become a pressure cooker for many relationships, with constant tension and loss of familiar routines. Reports suggest that there is increased drinking and intimate partner violence.
There is now no escape from the marital problems one could previously sweep under the rug. Marriages that were tense or rocky before COVID now have a day of reckoning. These couples are being forced to consider the future of their marriage. Some have reached out to psychologists, like me, to try to heal their relationships, and others have contacted attorneys or divorce coaches or started to research divorce on Google.
In fact, since March, online Google searches of "divorce" have increased more than 30% and many divorce professionals have predicted a spike in divorces.
Mattress sellers report increased sales of mattresses as couples move to separate bedrooms within their home or to rentals outside the home.
“The now-familiar stresses of quarantine—money worries, boredom, lack of escape from each other, conflicts over the kids, conflicts over chores, lack of exercise—are forcing many couples to reconsider how they really feel about their partners, say lawyers and marriage counselors.” (1)
Courts are closed or minimally staffed so filing for divorce or resolving legal issues can be prolonged, although some areas are allowing e-filing of the divorce paperwork. This can be frustrating for partners who want to divorce.
These challenges tax even the healthiest of marriages. Add to this the emergency of this situation for which we were unprepared and blindsided. We have had to adapt quickly to new ways of working and new ways of parenting.
Most of all, we have had to negotiate agreements about what level of risk is acceptable. As Nathan told me, “She’s hanging out with her friends without masks or social distancing and I am afraid she will bring the virus home to me and our kids. The biggest fights we have now are about what precautions we agree on. Mostly we don’t agree, and that is really stressing our marriage right now.”
Forced "nesting" as a silver lining during the quarantine
Since the pandemic began I have been called by clients complaining that they are headed for divorce but that they are not able to separate. They are forced to “nest” or “birdnest” and they need help structuring a nesting arrangement. I wrote my book, “The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting” before the pandemic, and the tools are now sorely needed.
Being confined with the person you will divorce is an opportunity to nest. It is another kind of nesting, not one that you chose, but with some powerful advantages and benefits that I would like to share with you.
With the increased stress in the home, the most important goal is to protect the kids from the damaging effects of marital conflict. Nesting helps you do this. Here's how to get started:
1. Nesting means that you and your spouse alternate being on duty, and physically separate if possible. You might rearrange rooms to give you each a separate bedroom. Think of it as “staying apart together.”
2. Create a schedule to minimize contact and reduce the tension or arguments.
3. Give each other private space that you both respect. When you are off-duty, this private space should be your sanctuary for self-care or for uninterrupted work.
4. Nesting gives you and your kids respite from the tensions or arguments.
5. The children’s routines stay stable, predictable, and undisrupted.
6. Create a written document to clarify expectations about what you each will do—while on or off-duty, who will be responsible for which tasks, such as shopping, cooking, cleaning, and assisting the children with schooling.
7. Make and keep your agreements to restore trust and respect. But don’t agree to something when you cannot follow through on it.
8. Nesting gives you the time to step back and consider your decisions with a clear head.
Ways to cope:
1. Relax your rules around screen time. Allowing your kids an extra half hour or hour gives you and them a sorely needed break so that you can focus on other things.
2. Be kind to each other—everyone is anxious and stressed. Things feel urgent now but it will pass. The uncertainty of not knowing when or how must be tolerated. Stay compassionate.
3. With the virus, you have become more aware that life is short and you want to be happier in your relationship than you were before. You may want to repair it or you may be more ready to leave and move forward to a new chapter in your life.
4. Try just a few minutes a day of meditation. Apps such as Calm and Headspace will guide you to a mentally calm place.
5. There are many online resources. Online classes for exercise and yoga are available so that you can stay in shape and release stress.
6. Pick up a new hobby, such as baking. There are many baking classes online.
7. Or join an online book club.
8. Stream movies, including oldies but goodies or cult classics. Try to find comedies to lift your spirits. Sharing these with your children (as age-appropriate) will lift their spirits too.
9. There are many helpful resources here. These resources include links to professionals, information, resources for families, divorce proceedings, mental health, as well as humor and COVID-inspired songs. Laughter is always healing. For relief, check out this site.
“For the most part, the pandemic is dragging all our issues out of our dusty closets and requiring couples to talk about their frustrations, desires, and needs. The good news is: If you face this challenge and are willing to work through it with your partner, you will likely come out of this pandemic stronger than ever before. And the couples who break up during lockdown were likely headed that way anyway.” (2)
If you look, you will find the silver linings in this quarantine. Nesting is an opportunity to help your family, strengthen relationships, and build trust.
Have faith that this will be over. The end is just over the horizon.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020