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How to help your relationship survive the Corona lockdown

The requirement to stay involuntary together indoors can produce quite a few tensions in a relationship. For some, such challenges can deteriorate and lead to a breakdown of the relationship. As a relationship coach I’m now involved in new scenarios, both in terms of setup (how our sessions are carried out) and in content (what couples are struggling with).

“If things continue this way for another month there will be murder” said Fred (all names in this article are a pseudonym), an independent travel agent who is now around the clock locked up with his wife (Wilma) at home.

“As an independent I’m now out of work and I’m going crazy locked up at home. I’m literally climbing the walls. I have accumulated a lot of debt and I can hardly see the light at the end of the tunnel. Wilma is also out of work at the moment, as she was sent on a leave without pay. So, what does she do? Shopping online all day! This addiction of hers hasn’t started today but now she’s dying of boredom and maxing out on our credit cards. And it’s not only that; She now cooks compulsively and keeps on bossing me around to go out to the supermarket and look for missing cooking ingredients.” Fred keeps on describing the pressure-cooker atmosphere that has been building up at home as a result of the compulsory lockdown: “the last straw was yesterday when she told me that she wants to redecorate our living room and dinning room with something she saw on some online shopping website. It hasn’t been even 2 hours since she heard me speak on the phone with my accountant about how to pay my contributions. She is completely detached from the real world and is completely ambivalent about our dire financial situation. When I scream at her to wake up, she says that that’s how she is coping with the situation and this is how she keeps herself sane now that the Corona is controlling our lives. I’m telling you; I’m going nuts and if things continue this way I don’t know where it will lead to”.

Consider this…… We have all promised our significant others to love and respect them forever. In good times and in bad times. But no one has prepared us for this simmering pressure cooker which has become our home in the last few days. This compulsory lockdown which is forced on couples, often with kids and without any certainty regarding our health and finances – is often translated into severe tensions which can easily escalate to quarrels and in extreme cases to domestic violence.

Essentially, we’re faced with a situation where our basic freedom is denied and we are forcefully “imprisoned” with another “inmate” in a very confined space. As such, we have lost our freedom to run our lives in the way that we saw fit and had agreed upon at the time we got together as a couple. And when we have to share the same space for long periods of time it can be quite taxing. In this situation our partner’s shortcomings, and minor issues we don’t seem to agree on, can look magnified and seem to be more pronounced and more difficult to tolerate. In addition, when you take into account the restrictions on going out to release pressure and recharge ourselves and our children, it’s not surprising that the pressure is mounting and an explosion is imminent. The main question is how we survive this period and can we learn how to get on with one another despite the rough circumstances. Can we help our relationship survives this corona crisis without dissolving our partnership?

Is it the same for everyone?

There is no general rule as such. Some people function better than others when working in a team under pressure. And, some people who have not had a lot of opportunity to spend enough time together as a couple, are actually benefiting from the situation and see it as an opportunity to strengthen the relationship and enjoy each other’s company. This forced co-confinement can cause many questions to float to above the surface. For example, questions about mutual communication, reciprocity, how much mutual respect exists, basic agreements regarding the upbringing of the children, how much time is spent together compared to how much time is spent on our phone or social media.

There are many agreements that now need to be revisited and possibly renegotiated. For example, if there was an agreement that one partner goes out to work whilst the other stays home looking after the children and the housework, now that both partners are permanently home responsibilities likely need to be reassigned.

The wife in another couple which I have just recently started coaching was telling me that when the lockdown started it all seemed fine. “Like an extended holiday” she said. In fact, they just returned from a skiing holiday in Italy and were instructed to go into self-isolation. In fact, even their two grownup kids who already left the house stayed with them and it was “one big party”. When they weren’t online food-shopping, they were cooking and dining and the kitchen had become the centre of the party for all seven of them. But this, unfortunately, was short-lived. Then it became “yucky” and they’ve grown short-fused towards one another. She said “the main problem is between my husband and I. He now works from home, which means that he’s barricaded himself in one room and gone back to his routines as if no one else exists. I’m bending backwards between preparing food, cleaning, doing the laundry and the dishes and nobody seems to care. If it was only my husband and I, it would have been less of a problem; Each of us would stay in his own corner doing his own thing and in the evening, in all likelihood, we would get together, have a glass of wine and watch and discuss the depressing news. But now this situation got us out of whack. I desperately need “me” time. My friend recommended you but my first reaction was: who’s got time for this right now?!”

This is a very common and understandable situation. Being locked down together for an extended period of time can be very stressful and challenge many relationships. But there are ways to help couples work together to overcome these trying times. Everyday routines can reduce many types of stresses. For example, going to work, kids at school and after-school activities, going to the gym, meeting friends etc. These days we’re confronted with drastic and unpleasant changes in our routines. As a woman, you are no longer just dealing with being a wife and a mother (and possibly an employee or a businesswoman), but you are forced to do it in a new reality of fear for the wellbeing of your family and yourself because of the Corona virus, and if that is not enough, in forced confinement. This is a very tough situation to get used to.

In domestic partnerships where responsibilities are shared in a ‘traditional’ manner there’s now an expectation to redistribute responsibilities. This necessity to renegotiate the “partners arrangement” can bring about tensions and increase stress levels. Another reason for elevated stress is that we’re already high above our baseline due to being locked up together 24/7, something which we’re not accustomed to. I always tell my clients that couples’ coaches and therapists also occasionally encounter domestic challenges. When I’m locked up with my (dearly beloved) wife in a confined space 24/7, there will be many prospects for frictions. All it requires is that one lights up the fuse and an explosion is just a matter of added fuel. So, what is vital during these challenging times is to create a good atmosphere at home – especially when you have children with you.

So how do you really do it? How can you survive this in a positive atmosphere?

The most important thing is to learn how to choose your battles wisely. Everybody now needs to take a deep breath and understand that this situation is only temporary. Things that in “normal times” we usually reactive to, we now need to learn to say to ourselves: I’m going to resist this; or on this issue I’m not going to argue; or, I’m not going to react. I’m going to try and keep a good atmosphere, especially in the presence of the children.

Children who witness their parents quarrelling are receiving a lesson in relationships. If they grow up in an atmosphere where their parents shout at each other – what they learn is that this is how you deal with conflict. Not really the best lesson to teach our future generation.

And if it still happens and there’s an argument, what do you do then?

It’s important that kids witness reconciliation. We need to emphasize the adaptations and the adjustments and not the failures. For example, how do we apologize when we make a mistake or acted unpleasantly or hurt someone we love?

Being locked-down together can produce a range of emotions. It’s easy to swing from fear to anger, feel frustration, helplessness and even silliness. These types of emotions tend to come and go randomly and seldom couples experience them simultaneously. The key here is empathy. For example, I may sit with my wife at our home whilst feeling indifferent to the potential risks of the Corona virus whereas my wife might be almost catatonic (just saying). I could ask her why she’s constantly hysterical, but a better approach would be to say “you are right, this is a scary situation”. It’s not really relevant how I feel about this, what’s important is to connect to the way our partner feels. Just as I don’t need to break a leg to be able to identify with someone who broke theirs, it’s unnecessary to be afraid of the corona virus to understand that our partner is struggling with it and try to help them overcome their fear.

For some, this imposed state of co-confinement can also produce a range of opportunities: for example, identifying our self-identity and then consider how well are we implementing it on a family level and in being a role model to our children.

What else can we do to preserve our relationship and get through this crisis as a stronger couple?

You might think this is easier said than done, but we must focus on being nicer to each other, taking into account that there are many things we cannot control but we can control how we react to one another.

Stay courteous and respectful despite the stress and anxiety. And find ways that work for us in reducing the stress and anxiety. For example: meditation, Heartmath, yoga, breathing exercise, mindfulness, drawing, listening to music, reading, indoor exercise or anything else that might help you feel zen. You might even want to consider online couples’ coaching for additional and customized help (or for bonus points).

Another good way to shift out of a stressful situation is to imagine yourselves in the future, perhaps in about 5 years, looking back and telling someone about how it used to be. This may help seeing the present from another perspective. For example, imagine telling your grandchildren about the strange and funny situations you experienced during the current crisis. Perhaps you would like to consider discussing with your partner how you will be telling this story and how you will share your roles in telling the tale. This can help distract from the current stressful present and help build resilience.

In my next article I will provide you with some more practical tools for avoiding relationship disaster during these turbulent times. Meanwhile, feel free to contact me with any questions which you think I might be able to assist you with. Coaching is available for couples and individuals.

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