Handling Confinement When Your Relationship Is Struggling

8 tips for getting along when you can't get along.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

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If you and your partner have been struggling in your relationship lately — lots of arguments, tension, and walking on eggshells, maybe even talk of separation or divorce — this can be an especially difficult time. Work took you out of the house, out of the tension and out of your head for several hours a day, but now there is no escape. The confinement itself creates tension, but it’s made all the worse if you are not getting along and feel trapped.

Here are some ways to help you both get through this difficult time:

1. Talk about the elephant in the room

The elephant here is the current emotional state of the relationship. Rather than stepping back and having this conversation, it's all too easy to continue running on autopilot, continue your snapping and snarling, or continue to retreat into a cold silence and distance. Instead, step up, firmly acknowledge that we are struggling, that yes, we are both sensitive and vulnerable right now and can easily trigger each other, and our confinement and stress are making this all the harder for both of us. We need to find a way to get through this.

2. Define rules of engagement

Some couples who were on the verge of separation but now can’t afford to do so may decide to create an in-house separation with defined separate spaces, clear rules of engagement (do we eat meals together, are we both food shopping separately, etc.) and with concrete behavioral expectations about how we will interact. 

But talking about these rules of engagement is helpful even if you are not at those endpoints: How do we share space that works for both of us? How do we avoid particularly tense situations? If meals, for example, are times where arguments are easily triggered or too emotionally tense, you may agree to eat together while watching a TV show or eating separately. Again, with you both being more emotionally sensitive, the challenge is to find ways to reduce those emotional triggers.

3. Agree to be courteous

Essentially this is agreeing not to argue and treat each other as good roommates. Here you agree to back-burner certain volatile topics for the time being — differing views about money, for example — or agree to stop bringing up the past. You are not sweeping these problems under the rug but instead deciding to tackle them when you are both in a better state of mind.

4. Increase the positives

Moving beyond the cordial roommates is proactively changing the emotional climate by deliberately increasing the positive comments in the home. Doing this will have a fake-it-till-you-make-it quality to it, and that’s okay. This is not about you being phony and insincere, but simply making the effort to notice and acknowledge the small positive things the other is doing or not doing: Thanks for starting the coffee; thanks for just listening to me yesterday. Words of thank-you and appreciation, no matter how small, go a long way.

5. Get on the same page about children

An exception to sidelining topics is those connected to parenting. It’s all too easy to have your relationship problems bleed into your parenting styles and impact your kids: You polarize with one becoming the tough parent, the other overcompensating and going easy. You don’t want to do this — it confuses the children; they learn to play one parent against another. Work out some basic ground rules and consequences you both can agree on and find a way to support each other. And by having a united and clear structure your kids will feel more settled, less anxious.

6. Don’t emotionally lean on your kids

Another easy-to-do response when you are feeling alienated from your partner is to lean on kids for emotional support, especially if they are teens. Pulling the teen into the adult world, treating him or her as a confidant puts too much pressure and responsibility on the child. Use friends and family for support instead.

7. Have your own space

Just living in a confining environment makes having a space to call your own important. It is even more so when tensions rise. You need a place you can retreat to, no matter how small, to calm down and regroup. If you literally don’t have enough physical space to do this, let others in your family know when you need to be undisturbed (and let them know that they can do the same), or set up a system to take turns using one quiet space in your house.

8. Do self-care

You know the drill — get exercise, eat well, meditate or have calming distractions to get recentered, get out of the house responsibly. And, if, in spite of your best efforts, your situation is continuing to deteriorate, is becoming unsafe, take care of you and your family. Find ways to stay with family or friends.

Paradoxically, the challenge is that under these stressful circumstances you both need to do now as a couple what you have probably been struggling to do for some time — reduce the tension and arguing. It’s time to put your head down, focus on you and less on the other guy, acknowledge what you can control and can’t to move through this time.

It's the best you can do.