There is no doubt that we are currently undergoing one of the most difficult times in living memory. Dramatic changes to the way we live present challenges for virtually everyone at many levels. It’s no different for couples whose lives have also been de-stabilised by the stringent requirements for social isolation and social distancing.
In this blog post I will discuss the challenges for couple relationships (i.e. couples living together) as a result of recent government measures to stem the spread of Covid-19. I will also discuss what intimate partners can do to minimize the negative impact of stress on their relationship created by the need for self-isolation. It is an adjunct to a video recently made by our practice to address this issue.
Challenges currently faced by couples
Normal routines and schedules have been thrown out the window as a consequence of lost jobs and most people now working from home. Couples who don’t normally see each other during the day are now finding themselves spending a large chunk of time together, often in a confined space, on 24/7 basis. Added to which couples have to deal with an unprecedented amount of stress as a result of unemployment, financial pressure, childcare responsibilities, caring for elderly parents/relatives, not to mention an increasing shortage of essential resources. The uncertainty, insecurity and worry about the future that most of us are experiencing during this time is taking a heavy toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.
On top of this, we no longer have access to our usual outlets for de-stressing. Gone are our regular work-outs at the gym, Zumba class, the much needed catch-ups with friends over coffee, Friday night drinks at the pub and weekend trips to the beach or bush, just to mention a few.
So what we have here is a double whammy – a heightened level of stress and limited ways to de-stress or distract ourselves. Two stressed people confined to a smaller physical space generate tension in even usually harmonious relationships. These factors accumulate to produce apressure cooker effect for couple relationships with one or both partners reaching their tipping point followed by lashing out at the other person.
Humans’ reaction to high stress
Whilst it is understandable, even normal for people to experience extra stress and feel overwhelmed during these extraordinary times, it is not helpful to act out our stress on other people especially family members with whom we share the same household. Stress is not actually the problem here (because it actually boosts our functioning in appropriate amounts), rather it is our capacity to manage our level of stress that is the key. Stress that is not managed effectively will manifest in verbal and behavioural aggression towards others and in many cases, it is directed at our partners because of the unguarded nature of the relationship and because of their close proximity to us. It is this very issue which accounts for the high level of domestic violence reported both in Australia and worldwide.
There is a biological basis for this type of reaction. As humans, if we experience more stress than we can usually tolerate, we go into survival mode, commonly known as the fight/flight response. This internal ‘alarm system’ is activated when we perceive threat, with our brain sending chemical messages to our body, preparing us to fight or escape. Because our mind cannot differentiate between a sense of threat based on us facing real physical danger versus having an argument with our partner (when we are already feeling stressed), the fight response is activated regardless. When we are in such a state, our mind will perceive our partner as the enemy and we will react by lashing out at them as if our survival depends on it.
Minimizing the negative impact of stress on our intimate relationship
Change needs to start at the individual level. In other words, each person needs to take responsibility for how he or she is handling their stress so as not to act it out on their partner. And if you are calm, you promote calmness in those around you. With this in mind here are some ways to de-stress which are still available to you:
- Take some form of daily physical exercise whether it be a walk around your neighbourhood or working out in your home gym. Exercise facilitates the release of cortisol, one of the stress chemicals that trigger the fight/flight response.
- Practise deep and slow breathing as this triggers a relaxation response in your body which turn sends a signal to your brain that you are safe and not under threat.
- Engage in mindfulness meditation which involves learning to focus on the present moment rather than letting yourself be carried away by the catastrophic thoughts and stories that our mind tends to tell us when we are experiencing stress.
- Write out your thoughts and feelings in a journal or diary. This is a very helpful method to express and process worries and concerns as well as difficult emotions so they don’t remain bottled up inside you.
- Ensure that you do some form of soothing/calming activity on a daily basis. Put away your technology for while and engage in quiet pursuits such as gardening, cooking, reading, crafts, listening to music or just taking a warm bubble bath.
When it comes to relating to your partner, the following suggestions may be useful in de-escalating the tension which is inevitable when you’re cooped up together:
- Set up a daily routine which balances spending time separately and time together. Do not take your partner’s need for space personally as they are probably still adjusting to the reality of being at home and seeing you more often than they normally do.
- If things get too tense between the two of you whilst interacting, give each other space by having time out. Do one of the activities suggested above during time out and agree to resume the conversation when you both less emotionally charged.
- Communicate how you feel rather than acting out your feelings. As the partner who is on the receiving end of what is being shared, just listen to your partner and do not reassure them or go into problem solving mode. Most of all, do not dispute how they are feeling as this is highly invalidating and generates even more stress for your partner. The most helpful thing is to give an empathic response that lets them know that you get how they are feeling (e.g.“You are very scared right now because you don’t know what’s going to happen to your job…” ).
- Be creative with what you do during couple time. You can’t go out to your favourite restaurant for date night but you can still create a romantic setting for dinner at home (tip: light scented candles, put on ambient music and cook your partner’s favourite dish).
As I often tell my clients, it’s not the event itself but how you respond to the event that counts. Whilst no one knows how long we will remain in semi-lockdown, the best way to respond to our current situation is to focus on being in the moment and to take things step by step and one day at a time. When it comes to our intimate relationships, we need to show more kindness, compassion and tolerance than ever towards our partner. By adapting to our new way of living together, we might just end up with a more resilient and bonded relationship at the other end of this crisis.