A client of mine said the following about her husband: “He doesn’t stop going... doesn’t stop talking about what we need to do... nonstop talking about social distancing, stocking up at the grocery store, fear about the stock market. This is our new daily conversation... And I can’t get out of the house, see friends or go to the gym like I ordinarily would.”
Are you at your limit? There’s a meme going around which asks, “Would you rather be home with your wife and kids, or option B” and before option B is explained the man says “B." This meme reminds me of when my father was retiring. I recall my mother telling me that she married my father for breakfast and dinner, but not for lunch. These scenarios show that even in the best relationships, we need a bit of space from one another.
Research has shown that natural disasters can highlight strengths in intimate relationships, but it will also expose problems. The Journal of Family Psychology published a study looking at couples after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and found more couples filing for divorces than usual after the trauma. Weeks ahead of the US in terms of dealing with COVID-19, applications for divorce have risen in the Chinese city of Xi'an. In addition to the divorces, research has also found that domestic violence can increase during times of isolation.
Most couples typically spend the bulk of most days apart since one (or both) partners work outside of the home. Now both partners are required to spend all day together. In addition to dramatic changes in routine and being together 24/7, other factors affecting couples include: anxiety about health, potential unemployment, financial insecurity, caregiving elderly parents, lack of social connection outside of the home, juggling childcare, managing chores and general uncertainty about the future.
If there are already vulnerabilities in the relationship, they are more likely to be revealed with these stressors. Being around each other's idiosyncrasies all day (and night) along with all of these stressors can bring up issues that had been bubbling under the surface.
In addition, couples may use different coping mechanisms during stress. For instance, one spouse may be preoccupied with risk; the other may be focused on keeping life as regular as possible. One spouse might take a proactive approach; the other may be more passive and hopeless. These differences make couples clash and this polarization can end relationships if the couple doesn’t take mitigating steps.
What to do:
Have sex! A common remedy for conflict — and a way to increase closeness — is sex. This might not be top of mind while you are worried about infection, finances and the kids. But romantic connection is even more useful than ever. However, if your partner is not up for sex, try not to nag or shame, because that will make him/her feel worse. Hand holding, hugging, offering a massage, or anything soothing and comforting can be quite connecting.
Pick and choose your battles. Make sure you don’t react to everything your partner does that annoys you. If your partner is moody, remember it’s probably not really about you. Give him/her extra slack. However, when you have to choose an important battle use “I feel __________” & “I need” statements rather than “you did…”
Do not harp on relationship problems. Put a limit (e.g. 20 minutes, once a day) on discussing difficult issues. And when it’s over, put it aside. Perhaps, plan a “conflict/concern time” in your schedule. Also, have a rule that either of you can call a time out if it gets too heated and you will resume later.
Carve out alone time. If you have the luxury of multiple rooms, create some time for yourself in a different room. If you don’t have a separate room, use headphones to create artificial boundaries.
Exercise. You can exercise in an online class, practice (or start) yoga, or just walk outside. There are many online resources (some of which are free).
Find a hobby. My tap shoes have been in my closet for months, but I started online tap classes last week. It’s a fun way to build a skill, do something productive and joyful on your own. Learn a new language for instance or complete the work around your house you’ve been meaning to get to.
Get out of your pajamas and get busy. Wake up, shower, and put on clothes. Make a daily schedule (on the hour) that includes completing chores, working on a project or skill, meditation, and walking outside.
Be engaged socially with other people through FaceTime. For example, schedule wine and dine with your friends and family through FaceTime or Zoom or host game night by playing virtual games. So, your partner is not the only person you interact with.
Avoid conflict around financial matters. Try to focus your attention on ways to survive throughout the remainder of the crisis. Try not to look ahead too much as it is unpredictable. During a crisis, try sticking to taking each day and week as it comes.
And lastly, if you and your partner need more help, turn to psychologists who are offering telehealth individual and couples sessions. Having a therapist to talk to about some of the challenges arising is invaluable.