COVID has had a magnifying effect on relationships. Couples who generally enjoyed each other in “the before times” might be stronger than ever with more time together at home. But many others aren’t faring quite so well in the pandemic, particularly if they have young children.
Now that we’ve been experiencing lockdown, a picture is starting to unfold. Two very different dynamics seem to be emerging among couples social distancing at home, says Carla Manly, a psychologist in Santa Rosa, California. One set of couples she sees is taking advantage of the quarantine to focus on their relationship issues, shoring up weak spots and working on problems previously allowed to fester. The other set is couples who appear to be deteriorating during the pandemic.
Cincinnati psychologist Nikki Winchester, Psy.D., is seeing some negative relationship effects of COVID-19 as well. Not long ago she got a call from a client on his way to the hospital after he cut his finger slamming it down during an argument with his partner.
“They’ve been having constant arguments compounded by having six bored and restless children at home full time on top of dealing with unemployment,” Winchester says.
Although quarantining isn’t likely to create new problems in a relationship, it can bring underlying ones bubbling to the surface. Financial stress can worsen irritability, and couples, like their children, will likely get restless stuck in close quarters. Most couples have been stripped of their usual coping and distancing mechanisms, such as breaking for the gym to cool off after a fight, notes psychiatrist Catherine Saxbe. In addition, the unexpected lockdown can make life seem stagnant and mundane, feelings that aren’t generally a boon to relationships.
“Days and weeks at home bring out the inner slob in most of us,” Saxbe says. “It’s hard to appreciate what’s in your face every day, and there is certainly less to talk about since our adventures outside the home are at an all time nil.”
Even among those who didn’t take a financial hit and are generally doing okay, the spread of COVID-19 and accompanying social distancing restrictions can take an emotional and psychological toll. Having little to look forward to can be depressing. People are worried about loved ones’ health, first responders’ safety, whether local businesses will survive, when their kids will be able to enjoy normal social interaction again. Constant heightened stress can stretch and strain the elastic holding everything together, including marital relationships.
“Chronic stress without our usual ways of finding relief brings out the worst in people,” says Brad Robinson, a marriage and family therapist in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Amid the pandemic, he says, “we’re shorter tempered, depressed, and don’t have a full cup to be as supportive as we’d normally be.”
What many people are experiencing now, although they might not realize it, is grief, says Dena M. DiNardo, Psy.D., a psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia. The experience of actually leaving the house every day puts you in a number of different social circumstances that contribute to how you feel about yourself overall, she explains. The sudden disappearance of social gatherings, celebrations, and in-person support from family and friends, therefore, can affect a person’s sense of self.
“Unless you’re a virologist following the predictions of pandemics, this was totally off your radar,” DiNardo says. “The loss is unimaginable and the grief is pronounced.”
One phase of grief is anger, which can be leveled at your partner if you’re not aware of the grieving process you might be experiencing, she says: “It creates a perfect storm for the anger to be displaced onto your partner because they’re there.”
DiNardo’s examples are likely to resonate: Trapped at home together 24-7, suddenly, the way your partner chews their food is enraging. The lack of attention to detail in cleaning around the house is infuriating, as is how often they’re on their phones and engaging with social media.
“The spotlight is out and the magnifying glass is ready,” DiNardo says. “Your partner and their behavior is [one of few] things you have to observe in real life. The couples who understand the process of grief associated with the pandemic are having more compassion towards themselves and towards one another.”
What Helps a Marriage Survive in the Pandemic Era
Showing compassion when you’re up to your ears in frustrated, whiny children, sticky surfaces, and have neither the room nor the time to yourself is easier said than done. But there are some strategies that can help keep your sanity and marriage intact.
Although parents’ pandemic to-do list is extra-long right now, it’s well worth penciling in a refresher course on communication while in social distancing jail together.
“It’s always helpful to practice essential communication skills, which are to reduce criticism and give and receive compliments and positive attention,” says Menije Boduryan-Turner, Psy.D., a psychologist in Woodland Hills, California.
One trick to improve communication is to ask each other, “What did you hear me say when I said ‘take out the trash’?” for example, says Thomas McDonagh, Psy.D., founder of Good Therapy SF.
“Often we misinterpret or twist what our partners are saying, and in an overly negative way,” McDonagh says. This trick, he adds, helps to correct the issue if a partner hears instead, continuing the example, “You’re lazy and I have to do everything around here.”
Mapping out a schedule and a routine while being at home together with children is incredibly helpful for parents.
“The couples who took the early recommendation to come up with a schedule are doing much better much more quickly than parents who took longer to do so,” says DiNardo. “There was a lot of resistance to creating schedules at first, which I think was a result of the sheer shock of what happened to life [as we knew it].”
The schedule needs to delineate how you each accomplish your own work tasks along with kids’ online learning if they’re in school or care if they’re not. Partners also need to plan individual time, couple time, and family time.
“I saw a lot of couples starting to nitpick about who did more and when,” DiNardo says. “As they created schedules and wrote down their list of regular household duties, it became much more difficult to argue about who does more or less because it was written down and able to be seen.”
Self-Care Is Still Crucial
This is obvious, but bears repeating: Don’t forget to consider your own needs as an individual in addition to the needs of your family.
“I suggest my clients take a mental inventory and ask themselves what need was not being met when they were most frustrated with their partners,” McDonagh says. “Often there is a pattern to these things, and once we become aware of the pattern, we can assess if it’s possible or reasonable for this person to fulfill this need.”
Although the basics might seem obvious, healthy habits can fly out the window when we’re in “crisis mode” as normal life is upended. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising. Generally, Robinson says, junk food tends to increase depression and exercise can boost mood.
“People are pretty grumpy if they don’t get the chance to get away from caring for others and focus on caring for themselves for a little bit each day,” he says. “Exercise allows us to be more mellow, which is what everyone who’s stuck at home right now needs.”
Robinson also recommends an exercise he uses himself to cope with anxiety: First, ask yourself how you’re experiencing anxiety in your body; is it in your gut, shoulders or chest, for example?
“Most of the time we stop ourselves from feeling our physical sensations, but they are the key to finding calm and relief,” Robinson says.
Next, physically push against a wall, he says.
“While I’m pushing against the wall I see myself moving that ball of anxiety out of my gut, or chest or shoulders, out through my arms and hands into the wall,” he says. “I just stay pushing against the wall until I feel a full sense of relief. When I’m done, I’ll have a fuller sense of optimism about what I’m facing, and will be more sure of my ability to handle it.”
It’s an exercise to consider. Also, a fine metaphor for what it feels like going against what seems like an immovable object.
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