By Laura Kasper PhD. Stanford Medical School
“It’s only been a few days and we’re going crazy”, says Tracy, exasperated, about herself and her partner. In the time of Covid19, the shift toward 24/7 togetherness, as we are finding out, is not all domestic bliss and afternoon delight. Coronavirus news is full of health statistics, stock market challenges, and announcements about the latest shelter-at-home orders. But focusing only on these economic and societal impacts overlooks how these issues are affecting people’s lives at home, where they’re now spending all of their time.
Partners are responding differently to the fear, anxiety, and uncertainty this virus creates, which can translate into disagreements about how they should attempt to stay virus-free. This also brings up how much negotiation and veto power families and couples expect to have about one another’s choices. Tracy, for example, recently wanted to order takeout, but her partner, Steve, didn’t think it was a good idea. Finding it difficult to talk about, they ignored the issue for a while, until Tracy got hungry and ordered the food. Her partner responded with an eye roll of indignation. “I didn’t think it was a big deal, but obviously he did,” Tracy said.
Does being in love in the time of coronavirus mean that someone must practice the social distancing and hygiene practices the way their partner wants?
At play here is a well-known concept in couples therapy that’s always operating in our intimate relationships: how couples should navigate the tension between autonomy and dependency. We each want to have a sense of agency over our own life and choices (our autonomy), and the choice to share our life with someone else also means we’ve agreed to take their wants, needs, values, and beliefs into consideration (our dependency). This naturally creates tension when our feelings about what is important or risky differ from our partner’s feelings.
Getting ahead of the virus’ potential impact on our relationships should be part of any good coronavirus readiness plan. So, what are some best practices when it comes to navigating our relationships in the time of coronavirus?
- Check your attitude
Times of great anxiety like this are a prime breeding ground for fears to manifest as frustration and contempt. This might appear in some not so helpful “I’m right, you’re wrong” attitudes. While thinking you’ve got the right answer might give you some sense of control in these chaotic times, it’s only an illusion. What you really end up doing is hurting your relationship. Recognizing and communicating that you’re afraid can change the conversation, and it’s a lot easier to be compassionate toward a worried partner than an angry one.
- Up your self-soothing game
If you’re noticing that you’re becoming triggered by these less than helpful attitudes, it probably means it’s time to give yourself some much-needed comfort. Self-soothing doesn’t have to be a big investment of time. It can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths to avoid being snarky before you say something to your partner, waking up a bit earlier than everyone else to sit quietly before you start your day, or not consuming any coronavirus-related news for a while. When you’re feeling triggered or anxious, try putting your hand on your own heart and say something kind to yourself like, “I’m here, and I care about this.” Try to notice when you speak to yourself harshly, and experiment with saying something kinder. Imagine what you might say to a close friend who was stressed. Bringing more kindness to your own fear and anxiety will help you bring more kindness to your partner’s as well.
- Stay on your side of the net
Next time you’re tempted to tell your partner what they should do or criticize what they might have already done, instead talk about the concrete behaviors you’re observing and your feelings, wants, needs, and beliefs about them. Instead of barking “Wash your hands,” perhaps try “I’m feeling nervous that you interacted with the delivery person. I would feel more comfortable if you would please wash your hands before you keep making lunch.”
- Give each other plenty of space
I know it sounds like an oxymoron, given that we are on lockdown, but there are still ways to give one another space both physically and emotionally. The first priority is to notice when you might need space and create it for yourself. This might mean noticing irritability, fear, tension, or tiredness and deciding to go for a walk, agreeing to have some not-talking time before returning to a difficult conversation, calling a friend or family member, or doing something on your own at home, like reading a book or working on your own project. It’s also important to set aside some dedicated time for your connection with each other, especially since work and possibly your children are around the house more than usual.
- Have some fun
If we focus on the stress 24/7, the cabin fever will only get worse, so try to lighten up. In times of stress, there aren’t many pleasure chemicals, like dopamine and oxytocin, moving through us. We need to actively do things to generate these chemicals, and research shows that doing fun and pleasurable activities helps. Bring some humor into coronavirus discussions with your partner to increase your pleasure chemicals and reduce tension. Or agree to talk about anything but the coronavirus for some period of time. Start a fun project together that you’ve been putting off, like gardening, reading a book, or fixing up a spot in your home.
- Acknowledge and accept your differences
Talking about and naming the differences in how you are responding to the coronavirus is an important step to deescalating any coronavirus conflict. Freshen up on your active listening skills so you can hear the other person’s viewpoint and have them feel understood for their differences. You don’t have to agree with how they see the situation, but having them feel heard and understood will go a long way to creating more harmony at home.