Keeping Your Relationship Healthy During the Coronavirus
During stressful and cramped times, partners need soothing.
Posted March 25, 2020
I recently met with Jenny and Mark (names have been changed) in a socially-distanced videoconferencing therapy session, and things had taken a turn for the worse.
“With the pandemic we are on each other’s nerves, and working from home isn’t helping,” Jenny said. “He likes to crank up the music as he works, but today I was in the next room hosting a meeting, and Duran Duran came blasting through. My boss was very amused. Plus, he talks really loud when he is on his video meetings.”
“I turned down the music,” Mark replied, “But she doesn’t always respect my work space either. She sticks her head in my office and wants me to stop and take a break with her, or help our son with his homework.”
Jenny and Mark were feeling the stress of a global threat and the adjustments it required, and their raw nerves were rubbing up against each other. During these unprecedented and difficult times, it is not surprising relationships are suffering. To stay healthy as a couple it is important to give the relationship some attention, reduce stress, and soothe each other.
Soothe Your Partner
In a healthy relationship, a spouse is a healer. James Coan at the University of Virginia did an experiment where a married woman was placed inside an fMRI machine to monitor her brain while she received random shocks to her big toe. This wasn’t exactly a trip to the spa. The pain lit up her limbic system, which is activated by threat and fear. However, when she held the hand of her husband, her brain stopped the danger signals and calmed down. This effect was stronger when the marriage was better. However, when a stranger held her hand, there was no calming effect. She remained jumpy and fearful as though there was no helper. The effect isn’t gender-specific and is also found in other intimate relationships, including LGBTQ couples. A loving, present partner is a powerful tonic and can help to soothe the fears and threats that come during difficult times.
Successful couples realize when their own stress is setting each other off, and instead of fighting fire with fire, they use water. Cooling off has a good effect on both and when people are in close proximity, they influence each other’s level of calmness. The next time you or your partner are getting stressed, take some deep breaths, and this may help you both relax.
Focus on Basic Needs
Mark and Jenny realized they were taking their own frustrations out on each other. Mark admitted he was concerned about the future of his job, and had overreacted. Jenny then shared her fears that their older daughter, who was away at college, was going to get sick. It was good for both of them to realize their snippiness was related to legitimate needs for reassurance and safety. As we addressed these underlying emotions, they calmed down and were able to hear each other with empathy. They had what Sue Johnson calls A.R.E. dialogues, emphasizing accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement. They stayed open to each other even when scared, tuned in to each other’s body language and emotions, and focused on the other’s needs and respected them.
Use Soothing Speech
How do you soothe a crying baby? Tell it to calm the heck down? Hopefully not. The typical human response is to hold her gently, look into her tear-filled eyes, and speak in a sweet manner. This cooing is called “motherese,” and it helps a baby feel secure. This works with your partner as well. It doesn’t require baby talk and a high-pitched voice, just a calm tone. When people hear soothing speech, it activates sections of the inner ear and increases tone in cranial nerves that slow down reactivity. It sends a message to the brain that all is well.
Professor Steven Porges has studied this phenomenon and says that couples who use reassuring, gentle expressions and intonation connect directly to each other’s nervous systems. This provides a balm to frayed nerves and adds healing to the words. During the challenges of a worldwide pandemic, we can each provide critical emotional care to those we love most. There is an old saying that kindness is a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see. If a partner is trying to help, they may fumble with their words, but their calm and soothing efforts will heal them both.
Lane Beckes, James A. Coan and Karen Hasselmo. Familiarity promotes the blurring of self and other in the neural representation of threat. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci (2013) 8 (6): 670-677.
Rollin McCraty, The Energetic Heart: Bioelectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People (Boulder Creek, CA: HeartMath Research Center (2003): 1. Publication No. 02-035.
Susan M. Johnson, Hold me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. (New York: Little, Brown, 2008), 49-50.
Stephen W Porges, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2011).