Relationships, Covid-19 and Sheltering in Place
A colleague of mine at The Couples Institute has written two helpful blogs to support our relationships during this stressful time.
Stacy Lee, LMFT, has been employed at The Couples Institute in Menlo Park, CA, since 2008. She has trained with relationship experts Ellyn Bader, Ph.D and Peter Pearson, Ph.D. to provide innovative tools to couples and individuals. In 2019, Stacy became the Clinical Director of the institute’s therapy services. She is passionate about providing people with quality resources which includes building a network of skilled therapists to reach more couples and individuals.
In her first blog she raises our awareness of the normal struggles that we may face whilst in voluntary isolation (or in lock down) and offers tips on how to avoid these. She also highlights the relationship gains that can come from working as a team.
What to do, what to avoid, and how to find opportunities in disguise - by Stacy Lee
The outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has our communities facing several rapid changes. The shortage of basic goods, social distancing, and the order to shelter in place have caused intense emotional reactions and a strain on many parts of our lives. Most employees are working remotely for the foreseeable future. While others, like first responders, have to continue to go out and be of service during this time of great difficulty. Some are far away from elderly loved ones and are feeling powerless to help them. Schools are closed and young children don’t understand why, causing them to struggle emotionally and perhaps creating acting out behaviours. Only stores considered essential are open, but even then, they are low on goods. The list of changes goes on and on. There’s no doubt that many of these changes are putting pressure on all of us-professionally, personally, and relationally.
On the other hand, it can be possible to experience positives through these difficult times. I have talked to several people that are more than happy not to have a long, daily commute. I had a client express how interesting it has been to see what her husband does on a day to day basis for work; explaining that seeing how much he has to talk all day explains why when he came home, he was often not in the mood to talk to her. This was so different then how she spent her day, so she was always ready to talk. Seeing this difference helped her understand a difficult pattern in their relationship and has shifted her thinking. We could have talked about her experience in session but it was so much more powerful and meaningful for her to see it first-hand. Seeing things from a new perspective can offer potential for a deeper sense of understanding, empathy and hope.
Let’s take a moment to look deeper at some of the struggles and benefits of sheltering in place.
Let’s start by looking at a few of the potential problem areas and ways to avoid them.
1. No clear divide between home and work. Getting caught up with home chores or your partner hopes that you being home means more help during the day. Partners or kids interrupting you for questions or conversations because you’re easily accessible. Or even the partner that is normally away starts micromanaging the partner that is home more. There is more time for differences to come up and create conflict; parenting, chores, meals, etc. When you’re both working from home how do you know who does what? It can also be difficult to switch roles so quickly in the course of just minutes. How you navigate these transitions are important. I had a client share she noticed that when she talked to her partner during the day he would respond more as if she was his coworker or subordinate. Issues like this will continue to build tension in the relationship and if left undealt with will create breakdowns in communication and connection.
2. Time blur between home and work. Not stopping your work day “on time”, not disconnecting from devices leading to ignoring your partner, family or home responsibilities. It’s easy to get caught up in “work zone” mode. If you are working on a project and you find yourself in the zone it’s hard to walk away if you are not thinking of commute time and picking up kids or dinner. This is not a new problem for some couples, many I work with bring up a partner being too plugged into work as a problem. Yet, with the new requirements to work from home this could increase those issues, creating more conflict.
3. Feeling stuck. Isolation and uncertainty can lead to increased stress, agitation and restlessness. One client shared that he is seeing behaviors from his partner he had never seen before and he is struggling with ways to accept them when he is already so stressed. Other clients have shared that they don’t feel as worried about the situation but their partner is extremely worried. This may look like the more concerned partner being glued to social media and news sites getting as much information as they can and then crying or panicking about what they are learning. The less worried partner then feels concerned for their loved one and overwhelmed by not knowing how to help them. This leaves everyone feeling stressed, exhausted, and often disconnected.
4. Extra Tasks. No child care, no school, both people working from home. Having to plan for 3 meals a day for you and your family. For some people who are used to working in large companies that provide food, coffee and refreshments this may feel like a big shift. Obviously, I think even they would agree that in the scheme of things this is not huge. Yet it’s amazing how these little daily shifts can cause extra internal stress. It can be like throwing a pebble in a small pond and watching the ripples grow. Beyond that if there are kids home, they have needs, needs that in a home where both adults work are usually handled by a childcare provider or school. Now all these extra tasks, meals, school work, changing diapers, potty breaks, etc. all fall to them. This creates extra tasks for both partners and can strain even the couples who do teamwork well.
5. Sweatpants Effect. I didn’t create the phrase, I read it somewhere, but it’s the perfect description. If we’re not going into the office or seeing anyone most people will not get dressed or primped for work in the same way as when they have to leave the house. In all honesty I can admit that even when I see clients online there are times that I look “business ready” from the screen up but I have sweatpants and the unicorn slippers my kids gave me for Christmas on. What is important to look at is how this might affect not only how attractive your partner feels towards you but how you feel about yourself. If this goes on for weeks it can feed into your self-esteem and emotions.
Helpful Steps To Avoid These Potential Problems.
1. Boundaries. Setting boundaries can help in a number of ways.
o Set up separate work spaces. Even in the smallest homes you can have separate spaces. Be flexible to use areas that you may like to keep “work” free as options right now. If you only have one table and you both need it create a partition with a box, sheet or pillows. This has nothing to do with how much you like your partner, but instead has to do with distractibility.
o Headphones. If you need background noise and your partner doesn’t use headphones. As someone who struggles with focusing when there is too much background noise, like right now writing this article my husband is on the phone. I often will put my earbuds in and put calming sounds like “spa” music or nature sounds on. Nothing with words just enough to drown out the talking so I can focus.
o Be clear on what work hours are and what “home” hours are. During home time disconnect from text, email and work. If you have a job that requires you to work on and off all day then set aside a chuck of time that you know you can disconnect and be fully present with your family. This will help your connection with them but it’s also really important self-care.
2. Timing. Whether it’s setting up time to spend together, alone, or specific work requirements, be clear about what you need and work together to include it in the schedule. Clients recently shared an experience of some miscommunication they had around expectations and time. They said the most important thing they learned from that is “Don’t assume your partner is on the same page. Be thoughtful and explicit about what you need and want.” Remember none of us are mind readers so if you have a request or need when it comes to timing, communicate. Whether that is communicating that you need to create some individual time, uninterrupted time for a work call, have an online outing with a friend, or if you need more fun time together that isn’t about COVID-19, sheltering in place, or daily obligations. Also look at ways that both being home gives you more opportunities for spontaneous time together.
3. Team-Work. Situations like this really push our ability to practice teamwork. Sitting down and setting up a calendar with your important work calls to make sure that someone is available during those times to manage the kids’ needs so you can focus on the call. Or if you have a late online meeting and the other person needs to be in charge of dinner that night. Divide and conquer! You can create a list of daily obligations from chores, meal prep, homeschooling, and child care. Then take time to be purposeful about what tasks each of you are taking on. The most important thing here is FOLLOW THROUGH. Right now, trusting our partners is even more important. With our world so uncertain, if your partner feels like they can’t rely on you to do what you say you’re going to do then their anxiety, agitation and stress will increase. So, if you sit down and divide up tasks, FOLLOW THROUGH, and if for some reason something gets in the way communicate to your partner what your plan is or ask for help.
4. Travel. No, this is not ignoring the announcement to shelter in place , because I’m telling you to travel in a way that you don’t even leave your seat. Travel into your partner’s experience of the current situation. As mentioned above many couples are finding that they have very different outlooks on the current state of affairs. This may feel frustrating at times, but it can also be a gift. If both parts of the couple were extremely anxious, then there would be no balance. Here is how you travel:
o Set aside a specific amount of time to travel into each other’s experience and thoughts. We will use 30 minutes in the example.
o Take turns. 15 minutes each. Partner A starts and Partner B listens and recaps back what Partner A shares. Partner B doesn’t give their own opinion during this time. Partner B is traveling into Partner A’s world for a tour.
o Switch. After Partner A shares for 15 minutes. Partner B goes and gives a tour of their world. This is not a point by point rebuttal to what Partner A shared. It’s what Partner B would have shared if they went first.
o Remember the fact that you see things differently can help bring balance to your home; this is not about proving who is right. I had a client share that listening to his more anxious partner made him take action in ways he wouldn’t have on his own, which he is now grateful for. His partner shared that at times when she is “freaking out” about something, hearing him say “It’s ok” helps decrease her worry. It’s just like traveling to the beach then going to the mountains, each place is different and each place can be appreciated on its own.
o It can be helpful to end your discussion by sharing 3 things you are each grateful for
Recently, Dana Hartman, a CICS therapist shared this in an email “Anxiety is a normal and natural response to new situations, and setting aside scheduled worry time prevents an over abundant amount of anxiety from sneaking in throughout the day and getting in the way of important life tasks that need to be done as well as maintaining a mindful state.”
5. Goodwill. Defined as a friendly disposition; desire to do good to others; and kindness. Be patient with each other. There are bound to be bumps and hiccups during this process. No matter how much we try to schedule, communicate and use teamwork we are going to miss opportunities and make mistakes. Yet if you choose to believe that your partner is good and is simply struggling, like all of us, you will be more likely to see their mistakes as just that; an error in actions not a lack of love. Go slow with judgements and reactions. Use these missed opportunities to learn about each other, your needs, and how to better navigate this difficult time.
6. Disconnect. Put the screens away! Find time to stay off the news or social media and enjoy something that we all have a limited amount of; time together. Also, I would encourage everyone to stop looking at the news at least 2 hours before bed. Taking in a lot of the information that stimulates your brain and may create anxiety right before bed won’t lead to a restful night of sleep. Be thoughtful about how you spend your evening hours. The news and social media will still be there in the morning.
7. Fun and Connection. It’s so easy to get overloaded with everything going with COVID-19 and needing to shelter in place. We’re inundated with information, much of it stressful. We have to be mindful about not going so far down the rabbit hole of COVID-19 and all that accompanies it that we forget to enjoy time together, laugh and connect.
o Set aside time to connect. Even on the busiest days you can find 10-15 minutes at the end of the work day to do a check in. Ask each other what is working and what isn’t? Find ways to work together against the current situation.
o Don’t just talk about COVID-19. Talk about some nice things around being at home together.
Examples from clients.
• “We’re happy to not have to get up as early, which also means we can stay up a bit later after the baby is down and enjoy a glass of wine and show together.”
• “We’ve had more time to be intimate”
• Many said they were able to get some home projects done that they’ve been putting off.
• Others report they have more time to spend alone which is helping them feel less tense with their partner.
Take a moment to note what positive impacts you’ve experienced?
More Potential Benefits and Opportunities
1. Decreased stress from not commuting and an increased time to focus on tasks and home life.
2. Being able to take breaks and spend spontaneous time together. Lunch breaks, day sex, staying up later.
3. Opportunity to get to know your partner in a different way by learning more about what they do during their day.
4. Gain more insight into the patterns that exist in your relationship and find ways to depersonalize them. For example: Do you remember the story above about my client who learned how much her partner had to talk during the day for work? Well, in the past she would feel let down and hurt when he would come home and not want to talk. It’s easy in that moment for her to internalize that as meaning something about their relationship or his feelings for her. Yet, now that she has had this realization it will be easier to remember that when he ends his work day and doesn’t feel like talking that is about him feeling overwhelmed. She no longer has to make it about her and so they can talk about ways to work together and give him space to recharge and her space to connect.
On a personal note, as hard as this is, I’m also filled with hope seeing the strength individuals, couples and communities are showing. We are facing uncertain times, but one certainty we have is that we have choices; choices in how we act, react, spend our time, and treat those around us. We can come out stronger than when we went into this crisis.
If you want creative ways to stay connected and make some memories while sheltering in place check out this article, Ways for Couples to Connect during Sheltering in Place.