What Happened To Us? How The Coronavirus Has Affected Relationships

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With the surge in confirmed coronavirus cases and people choosing or being required to restrict activities outside the home, many are finding themselves increasingly isolated or, in contrast, having more prolonged contact with the people with whom they share living quarters. While people often wish for the opportunity to have more time to spend with their loved ones, they may discover that the fulfillment of that wish can be a blessing or a curse, or at times, both. It is this situation that has drawn my attention in recent weeks and, as a psychologist, I am in the unique position of being able to explore its impact on those who are in treatment with me and share experiences of either enjoying or suffering extended time with their partners and children.

PATTERNS OF FUNCTIONING

No Change

Some couples normally lead lives characterized largely by parallel rather than interactive styles of engagement. In such cases where previously they were engaged in work or other activities at separate locations, they are now both home throughout the day. However, they continue to conduct their activities in separate places, reconvening later when the workday concludes. Children at home engage with one parent or the other or online with their own friends, such that the usual balance of space and time apart and engagement in activities remains largely intact. This appears to be a respectful and comfortable arrangement with increased physical presence in the home but limited intrusiveness. I have heard few complaints from those living out this scenario.

One couple’s usual strategy for managing conflicts is employed with greater frequency as increased time in each other’s presence, uninterrupted demands of work and family, and the absence of the buffer of friends or outside activities may give way to increased opportunities for disagreement. In this situation, the one who is most irritated walks away and returns after a period of reflection that enabled them to reach the conclusion that the triggering event was “not that important.” This allows the irritation to dissipate sufficiently for the couple to reconvene later, at which time the angrier of the two extends an apology that is graciously accepted by the other.

Improved Functioning

I have also heard about increased closeness and more effective teamwork and problem-solving in some couples. Rather than letting things go, as above, if a conflict arises, unless urgent, the issue is deferred, to be addressed during a scheduled weekly meeting when feedback and discussion as to possible solutions can take place. This allows for a chance to reflect first and wait until calm and clear thinking prevail. This also gives the couple an opportunity to plan activities outside the house, allowing the couple to have conserve precious non-quarantine time efficiently and to have something to look forward to.

Another individual who is now working at home in a demanding job, with a spouse in an even more demanding job also working at home, has found herself responsible for household management, child care, and the academic responsibilities of two special needs children. Even in the best of circumstances, the marital relationship was challenging, but despite being overwhelmed, this woman now recognizes that her husband’s job duties leave him few options and she does not fault him for his limited contribution. They are no longer competing to see whose approach will prevail, a situation that led to simmering resentment and overt conflict. Instead she sees both of them working to overcome their “stubbornness” and to reach out to the other for help when they can no longer cope. The present demands being heavy in the eyes of both, neither perceives asking for respite as a sign of weakness, loss of face or an attempt to shirk responsibility to request help. They trust that the need is genuine and increasingly they are discovering it is safe to risk reaching out, accepting help as offered rather than demanding things be done in a specified way. This woman is relieved, inspired, and hopeful that this new respect and cooperativeness will endure past this crisis.

Emergence and Escalation of Problems

To the contrary, one member of a couple shared with me that she preferred the detachment of their usual routines and was reminded during this period of enforced confinement that she and her spouse are quite mismatched in needs and expectations of each other. They were able to pick up the slack for each other out of necessity when hectic work schedules limited the contributions to the running of the household that each could provide, but now her spouse expects her to function in a traditional role of housewife. She took issue with that as well as his expectation that she fulfills those duties as he preferred, limiting her say in how she would carry them out. She complained that the division of labor and demands on her were unfair and archaic. The same applied to their food choices, leisure, fitness and other activities, which she said he wanted to dictate. She was reminded that these were issues early in their marriage when she was a stay-at-home wife and mother and she has concluded, as she had in the past, that at least for her, their relationship works best when they have limited exposure to one another.

Similarly, another woman informed me that until recently her husband’s work shift kept him out of the house until the early hours of the morning, allowed for only rare sightings of him and limited his involvement in household responsibilities. Now, with the requirement that he stay home, she finds him constantly in what she has considered her space. He has assumed her responsibilities but only partially, leaving her to go behind him and complete tasks to her standards. When not busy with such tasks, he has appropriated her space on the couch and taken control of the remote, with his preferences dominating. Her efforts to express her dissatisfaction in a nonconfrontational manner have been futile. Now, to reduce their exposure to each other and in an effort to recover the control, space and peace that have fallen victim to his increased presence at home, she spends much of her time apart from him.

WHY THINGS HAVE CHANGED

Losses and Other Immediate Stressors

Many of us are contending with externally imposed alterations in our daily lives for which there is no foreseeable end and no sense of control in being able to bring about an end. Identifiable stressors are numerous and include living in close and more (or less, for some of us) frequent contact with others, disruption to our familiar roles and expectations of others, and reductions in social contact that offer comfort and support. Further, we are now juggling competing demands of work, family and household. We may differ from our partners in approach to managing our households and our needs for time spent together or apart based on the contribution of each person’s personal preferences and histories. We may be frustrated in our efforts to express and resolve differences with our spouses.

Myriad other stressors impacting us individually can indirectly affect our relationships. Actual or potential reduction or loss of income can be an enormous concern. We may be experiencing the loss of our regular schedule and routine, and with that, those rituals and activities that are anchored to the calendar and clock and are performed almost automatically, requiring little effort to remember. It may now take greater vigilance and mental energy to remember these. There is a loss of boundaries between work and home, and work hours and personal time including our sleep/wake schedule. Additionally, with an increase in screen time both for work and recreation, we are experiencing increased exposure to blue light, with its deleterious effect on circadian rhythms. Opportunities to implement our usual self-care and coping strategies may be limited, if available at all now.

Existential Changes

We may experience with shock the dawning awareness of our culture transitioning from being a land of plenty to a place of deprivation with lack of access to usual goods and services we have taken for granted. Now we may see our neighbors as competitors for what limited supplies remain. We grieve the loss of the security, comfort, and sense of control in our old routines and patterns of relating, which we may have taken for granted. Indeed, some people are becoming aware that the perception of control they had previously was perhaps merely illusory, shaking their sense of what is reality. As individuals and a culture, we have a reset in store, if only we could locate the refresh/restore button.

Positive Outcomes

While some people report ongoing and worsening dysphoria as this crisis does not appear to be abating as hoped, others have benefitted from this time to observe and reflect on their primary relationships, leading to insights, whether favorable or not, into needs, feelings, and interactional patterns both as individuals and as a couple. Positive outcomes have also been noted, including newly discovered respect, empathy and compassion for one’s partner and others. I have been told that by choice or necessity, there have developed opportunities to create new coping techniques or enhance existing ones, whether individually or as a team. In respect to our primary relationships, these have included improved communication and conflict resolution skills and managing the different and sometimes discordant needs for space, time, diversion and support.

HOW GROWTH IS POSSIBLE: ENHANCING ADAPTATION

Interpersonal

Whatever stage of adaptation we are in currently, there are some universal truths, should we choose to accept them, that can make coping easier. We may have limited control over what is impinging upon us, but we have control over our attitudes, choices and actions. Perhaps we can recognize that others who draw our ire are themselves stressed and fearful and deserve empathy and compassion. We may also choose to reframe this period of loss and uncertainty as a positive event freeing us from the usual pattern of lives lived in fast-forward with their attendant stresses and instead allowing us to reflect on what has worked and what has not, so that we can make needed changes as we move forward.

With a chance to reflect comes an opportunity to gain increased awareness of our own needs and feelings and those of the individuals with whom we are closely connected. We achieve this by listening. Insight and awareness are enhanced when we listen with the goal of understanding, rather than responding. We can learn, even if we don’t agree, and we can demonstrate that understanding through empathy. We can offer honest feedback, calmly presented in the service of shared problem-solving, acknowledging the intensity of the stress and the discomfort it arouses and crediting others for their efforts.

It is helpful to consider what is good for the relationship rather than what may benefit just one or the other of the partners, and we may need to pick our battles. Sometimes, waiting a few seconds before responding, or taking a timeout entirely and offering a designated time to reconvene, can be effective in de-escalating a potential conflict. Knowing that we serve as role models for our children in our handling of these challenges and attempting to offer positive examples from which they can draw in the future can be a powerful incentive to act deliberately.

Designating a regular, scheduled time to review and plan together is preferable to blindsiding others or subjecting them or being subjected to a constant barrage of complaints or criticisms. It can also be helpful to plan for time together in shared activities such as a walk, meal preparation or a virtual gathering of friends or family, if for no other reason than to have something to look forward to. Similarly, planning to cover our partner’s responsibilities so that they can have quiet time of their own can be a welcome gift.

Self-Care

It is critical that we replenish ourselves to prevent becoming depleted by the demands and worries that can overwhelm us at times. Reflecting on what gives us meaning and pleasure and for which we are grateful reorients our thoughts in a more positive direction. Performing a small act of kindness reminds us we have something of value to offer, whether or not it is recognized as such by the recipient. Remaining focused on what is happening in the moment in order to manage it effectively can serve to distract us from thoughts of future catastrophes we fear will befall us but that are unlikely to.

Self-care is essential, and if we have an already established repertoire of activities that serves us well, we must be vigilant about finding the time to engage in those activities and encourage our partners to do the same. As noted above, we may have lost familiar routines and rituals that keep us steady and offer comfort. It is essential that we create and stick to a new schedule with routines and anchoring events that are the same each weekday but distinguishable from weekend events.

However, admitting that our coping skills may need a tune-up is neither shameful nor a sign of weakness. Toward that end, it is essential to reach out to our usual sources of support, but should we find we are still struggling, there are numerous mental health professionals who are available to help, many of whom are offering telehealth services that are now being reimbursed by insurers.

WHEN DESPERATION STRIKES

If all else fails, help is available on an emergency basis. According to its website, the Maryland Department of Health offers Maryland’s Helpline, which is accessible 24/7, with trained crisis counselors available to support, guide and assist callers with problems related to mental health, substance and alcohol use, physical and sexual abuse, relationships or “any other identified concern.” Assistance accessing resources for veterans, families and others with a variety of needs is provided. The helpline can be reached by calling 211 and selecting option 1, texting your zip code to 898-2111 or by visiting www.211MD.org.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline makes available highly trained expert advocates 24/7 to talk confidentially with anyone in the United States who is experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship. The hotline provides immediate and lifesaving support and tools that enable victims and survivors to find safety and freedom from abuse. Support is also available to those who are concerned about the safety of someone they know.

Resources and help can be found by calling 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Another option for getting direct help is to use the live chat service on www.thehotline.org.

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