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7 Ways to Meet the Marital Challenges of COVID-19

Too much togetherness? How to balance dependency and autonomy in a lockdown.

Posted Apr 08, 2020 

Leo F. Seltzer

There’s something comforting about routines. We know what we have to do and there’s nothing preventing it. But with the unbidden invasion of the coronavirus, we find ourselves faced with all kinds of unprecedented restrictions.

To protect ourselves and others, we need to take various precautions. It’s as though suddenly the rules changed, and we weren’t allowed to vote on them, or provided with adequate time to acclimate to them. We’re now besieged with all sorts of things we were never asked to deal with before.

So here, the “IQ” we need to attend to isn’t our intelligence quotient but our irritability quotient. Given all that confronts us, the question becomes: How many adjustments and adaptations can we make without being overcome with such annoyance and aggravation that, unconsciously, we feel compelled to turn on others, especially those closest to us—like our now “too-intimate” partner.

Required to focus on matters we’d prefer to avoid can easily send us over our emotional edge. That’s why our frustrations with our spouse can get magnified to the point that we can hardly help but lash out at them (and, quite possibly, they with us as well).

It’s no coincidence that after COVID-19 cases in China peaked and their population was permitted to move about more freely, a surge in divorce filings was reported. And worldwide, lockdowns have increased the rate of domestic violence. Reactions to a crisis can bring out the best in us—but (maybe just as likely) also the worst in us.

Assuming we’re living in shelter-in-place conditions, this new normal will probably throw our emotional equilibrium significantly off-balance. Whether we’re extroverts or introverts, we all need alone time: time to regroup, time to hit the pause button—even on our closest relationship. And that can seem well-nigh impossible when we’re forced to live in close quarters with our partner indefinitely. Curiously apropos here is the phrase “too close for comfort.”

Many researchers have pointed out that humans need to balance their essential need for solitude, a time to enact their individuality and autonomy, with its opposite—together time—a time to enjoy the comforts of relationships, and to experience the sense of vitality and validation that such connection offers. And that crucial balance is seriously threatened when we’re part of a couple living together but lacking in the space that allows for the critical absence that “makes the heart grow fonder.”

So if you’re living with someone—not even to address here whether you’re also having to cope with restless, stir-crazy children—ask yourself whether your patience is beginning to wear thin, or may already be badly frayed. Have you and/or your partner become more short-tempered? More contentious? Petulant? Testy?

If so, here are some suggestions to help you avoid making even worse what, admittedly, is a dishearteningly bad situation.

1. Arrange for a couples “time-off.” Particularly if you live in a small apartment, you and your partner can start getting on each other’s nerves. Just as absence can make the heart grow fonder, familiarity can breed contempt. For being too “up close and personal” tends to exaggerate your negative perception of characteristics and habits in your mate you were never very fond of, to begin with (whether that be the way they load the dishwasher or the time they spend talking to their friends). Discuss with your partner how, without inconveniencing either one of you, you can contrive to make this alone time happen.

2. Don’t let differing viewpoints about the pandemic alienate you from each other. This isn’t a time to argue about whether your spouse is underreacting or overreacting to this extremely destabilizing national event. Don’t assume you understand all the ramifications of COVID-19 any better than they do. The level of their anxiety, anger, or depression may not match your own, but given how they’re sizing up the current crisis, it’s probably no less valid than yours either. So make every effort to respect and empathize with their feelings, as well as appreciate the legitimacy of how they’re processing the data that both of you receive daily from the media. True, their perspective might be arguable—but is it really worth arguing over?

3. Beware how you react to your loss of freedom (or maybe even your sense of free will). It’s likely that as a way of asserting some control over assorted feelings of helplessness, you’ve become more critical of your partner. When people feel they’ve lost control of their lives, they frequently look for someone to blame. And who’s closer at hand right now than your partner? So you’re apt to turn on them for things they themselves have little or no control over.

Almost certainly, the discouraging news you’ve been hearing and the troubling images bombarding you are making you feel rather victimized, especially if your financial security is now seriously endangered or your hard-earned savings for a rainy day are quickly drying up. But consider: This is that rainy day, and it’s raining on everybody else, too. So, continually remind yourself that one way or another, you’ll get through all this. Such an at least quasi-upbeat perspective, as difficult as it may be to cultivate, will make you less liable to take your frustrations out on your spouse.

4. Temper your temper, or control your anger before it controls you—and your relationship. If too much closeness between you and your partner is starting to get to you, getting angry with them (for matters big and small) will definitely increase the emotional—if not the physical—distance between you. Nonetheless, this is a time to safeguard, not sabotage, your relationship. And mishandling your anger will only serve to endanger it.

As understandable as your exasperation with shelter-in-place may be, you need to accept it as time-limited and make your peace with it. This is a time to increase your appreciation, understanding, compassion, and support of your spouse—not, unwittingly, to further augment any hostility or ill will that's existed between you. Consider that talking to your spouse oppositionally about what in them displeases you is all too likely to prompt them to respond antagonistically in turn (for they’re probably just as stressed out as you are).

5. Make love, not war. Excess togetherness hardly fuels feelings of lust. But can you find ways of renewing some romance between you by looking at your spouse with fresh eyes? Can you recall how during courtship you relished every moment you spent together? There’s certainly a novelty in these uncertain times. So can you connect it to the novelty you once shared when you fell in love?

Don’t forget that what makes sex sexy has mostly to do with what takes place between your ears. So, see whether you can’t find some way of replicating those earlier “warm fuzzies.” Through conscious intention transcend your present-day frustrations by celebrating the fact that your relationship has managed to survive up till now. And, if you act kindly and deliberately, you can ensure that it will continue to do so.

6. Bring play and humor to the rescue. It’s hard to retain your sense of humor when you’re anxious about contracting the coronavirus yourself or worrying about how it’s already compromising your financial situation. But as Oscar Wilde paradoxically opined: “Life is much too important ever to be taken seriously.”

So, take mini-vacations from the stress—and distress—you’re now experiencing by playing cards and board games. Or watching funny cat and dog videos, or your favorite comedians, or anything that made you laugh in the past. And YouTube is an excellent resource for finding things apt to get you to LOL. Not only can laughter be a much-needed respite from today’s ongoing, and all-too-sobering, global drama, it can be a potent stress reliever as well. And it can actually boost your immune system.

7. Plan, plan, plan. So many COVID-19 experts are now counseling that we should be “testing, testing, testing.” Substituting the word “plan” for “testing,” the same is true for you and your partner’s working together when you’re both housebound to efficiently handle day-to-day chores and responsibilities.

So, cooperatively, make a joint to-do list. And do so in a manner that the two of you feel is equitable and just. Because both of you are spending almost all of your time at home now, what once seemed fair and reasonable may necessitate some alteration. Try to be as flexible as possible and willing to take on tasks that earlier your partner may have had primary, or sole, responsibility for. Working together harmoniously can bring you emotionally closer together as well.

And that, right now, is an opportunity all of us should want to take advantage of.

© 2020 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


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