5 Keys to Relationship Sanity for Couples Under Lockdown

Quarantine is forcing some couples to make it work, or throw in the towel.

Posted Aug 06, 2020

COVID-19 has proven effective in both helping and hurting tenuous relationships. Enforced physical proximity increases the pressure to relate while simultaneously closing off avenues for relief, which increases risk to well-being.1 This is the perfect make-or-break storm for couples to either work it out, or draw further apart, as being cooped-up makes it hard to maintain the status quo.

Rather than succumbing to dysfunctional irrelationship—consciously seeking intimacy and connection while unconsciously defending against it—we offer some basic tools for effectively navigating conflict during these strange days. 

How we speak is often more important than what we say

"Hey, Jeffrey" demanded Kathy, "Get in here!"

"What is it now?!" Jeff screamed, bursting angrily into the kitchen, in only his underwear, to the astonishment of Dr. Borg, their couples therapist, who works with Kathy and Jeffrey on a video platform.

Many of us talk about the need to lower expectations when we’re feeling close to suffocated by the proximity of partners and families.  

"We have a couples session with Dr. B right now," exclaimed Kathy.

"I'm in my underwear!" gasped Jeff.

"Pants-check! So am I," said 64-year-old Kathy, who raised herself up from her kitchen bar-stool to reveal a set of skimpy briefs.

"Me too!" Dr. Borg quipped to defuse the tension, though he was, in fact, properly attired.

While managing expectations is important, so is not neglecting our needs This means learning to agree on what’s important so that we can sensibly negotiate expectations while both holding onto boundaries and leaving space for compromise.  

"So what's going on?" queried Dr. Borg. "You've been reporting week after week how well you've been doing, even offering to give up your meeting time for people who 'really need it.'"

"Well," answered Kathy, "once again, we're that couple."

"Yeah," agreed Jeff, "we are. And I’m not sure how that happened. Again.”

"I need your help, Jeff," Kathy put in. "You sit in the living room trying to keep your job going, while I'm doing everything else. Last night you just walked away from the dishes and said something about since you're the one ‘bringing home the bacon,’ I ought to be taking up more of the housework.” 

"Well, you said that you didn't mind doing the dishes."

"That doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to be a jerk when you talk to me about how I manage the house!”

"A jerk?" Jeff replied, "I wanted to know what was up with those charges on our credit card.”

"And I didn’t like how you said it, Jeff. I told you at the time. It was almost accusatory.”

Getting back on track

Relationship sanity includes being honest with ourselves about what we need from each other. Jeff had been stewing in insecurity for weeks. Kathy, more willing to express her desire for communication (though often reflexively devaluing her own needs as less important) had been left feeling lonely and isolated by Jeff’s silent suffering, which she felt had a selfish undercurrent. When she verbalized during therapy that she felt Jeffrey blamed her for the credit card issue, she remembered that, for their issues to air out in a healthy way, she was going to have to ask for what she needed:

“Let’s hit pause,” suggested Kathy. 

"OK," replied Jeff.

They reviewed tools they’d been practicing to re-align their communication, and renewed their promise to one another to remind each other—with compassion—what they felt was most important to them as a couple. They returned to techniques that had helped them to build the healthy give-and-take that kept their marriage from falling apart:

1. Respond—Don't React. In reaction, we act and then think; in response, we think and then we act. In practical terms, it means that the first thing we do when we feel threatened or overwhelmed is to hit pause.  

2. Don't Take the Bait. Many of us have learned that, when we attempt to confront or control another person's bad behavior, we end up regretting our behavior because we act unkind, even hostile. When we take that bait, the focus of the negotiation too easily becomes our negative reaction rather than what drove it. This allows both parties to sidestep the real issue that needs to be looked at.

3. Call a Time-Out. Unacceptable behavior can’t be processed usefully when either person is in emotional distress or feels unsafe. Stepping back permits space both parties need to reset in order to discuss issues productively. The pause needed may be only a few minutes, or it may be a period of hours; or the couple may need to put the issue aside until they can process it with their therapist.  

4. Really Listen. No matter who’s “right” or “wrong,” both parties need to listen and respond openly and generously when they’re at odds, especially in times of stress. Such listening reduces the likelihood of complicating the process with retaliation and/or withdrawal, and improves everyone’s feelings of safety. 

5. Empathize. Everyone feels vulnerable at times, but as kids and as adults. Feeling vulnerable is likely to provoke feelings of insecurity, fear, pain, and sadness. When we are willing and able to access these experiences of ourselves as they really are, we are better equipped to empathize and compassionately connect with others who, after all, also experience feeling vulnerable.

Safe enough to take emotional risks

Kathy and Jeff use these steps to divert a blow-out battle into a good conversation. The structured communication technique known as the “40-20-40” provides an empowering recipe for couples to follow to work productively through conflict.

"Well," sighed Jeff, "I guess if I’m being honest with myself—and you—I’m feeling very, very angry, Kathy. But not at you. I just feel so helpless and hopeless—like the world, my world, our world is falling apart and there’s nothing I can do about it."

"I get it, Jeff," said Kathy, much more calmly than before, "I think that was what you were saying without actually saying it when you blasted me about the credit card."

"It’s embarrassing for me when you see me like this. I always want you to see me as someone who can handle all this kind of thing,” Jeff admitted. 

"I know," said Kathy, "When you’re hurting it feels like you need me to be there. At the same time, when you get overwhelmed with worrying, I feel as if—I get afraid because you don’t seem able to be there for me and you don’t want me to be there for you.”

Jeff took the risk this time, and showed Kathy how much he actually needed her companionship, even if he had trouble putting it into words quite that frankly. But she was able to hear him, trust him more because of it, and feel less afraid of being abandoned. Up to that point, blaming each other was a convenient way to avoid these transactions, but flipping into admitting their own vulnerability totally changed what happened between them—perhaps giving new meaning to being undressed in front of one another during therapy. 

Epilogue

"Kathy," Jeff said, "as much as it sucked for Dr. B to see me in my skivvies, I am grateful for that reminder that when I don't communicate with you directly what I am going through, what I feel, I am going to let you know somehow."

"Jeff," said Kathy, "I love you and we're in this together. When you are upset, I'll try to remember that you might be feeling scared and alone, and be there for you."

References

1. While the mental health impact of COVID-19 is still being tracked, recent studies show rates of severe distress topping 50 percent and depression and anxiety in at least 20 to 30 percent of people (e.g. as reported here), with vulnerable populations at greater risk. Social support is important for most people during quarantine, and loneliness is a major factor for many, depending on personality and coping.

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