Can Your Relationship Survive This Much Togetherness?

As someone who has worked hard all my life, I’ve often talked about wanting to spend more time with my wife and family. But I never thought it would happen this way or that we’d be required to stay locked up together “until death do we part.” Well, hopefully, it won’t be forever. But forced togetherness can put a great deal of strain on any relationship. When you add in all the uncertainties and fears around Covid-19, it can make things downright incendiary.

I recently received an email from a fellow marriage and family counselor. He said he was having problems in his own relationship and was hearing the same thing from many of his clients:

My wife is freaking out about the threat of the virus, while I’m taking it in stride. We both follow the precautions, but she seems anxious and fearful all the time. We’ve gotten into fights about how concerned we should be and whether it’s helpful or harmful to stay up on the latest news reports. My male clients seem to be having similar problems with their wives. Do you think it’s a male-female thing?

From an evolutionary science, it makes sense that women as a group would be more concerned about taking care of themselves and their families while males would tend to be less stressed and worried,” I told him. “But that’s based on averages, not true of all men or women. I know many families where the men are more freaked out and the women are taking things in stride (That’s true in our home, where I tend to get hooked on fear and panic and my wife, Carlin, is a more stabilizing influence). But clearly the threat of Covid-19 is placing increased stress on all couples.

Even under normal circumstances, there is often conflict, confusion, and misunderstandings in our intimate relationships. But now we are facing unprecedented stresses and strains from the following:

  • A world-wide pandemic that is killing more people every day.
  • World-wide media that keeps our anxieties and fears stirred up with the latest horror stories, in addition to sharing news.
  • Conflicting information and misinformation that increases our fear and confusion.
  • The source of the potential danger is other people—our friends, neighbors, employees, and even those who are closest to us.
  • Since we can’t see the danger and we don’t know who is infected, we have to be wary of everyone.
  • Nearly everyone, except for the very rich, worry about their financial security and whether they will have enough to pay the bills.
  • Medical staff on the front line don’t have the protective gear they need and everyone worries about their own safety and the safety of others should they need hospitalization.
  • We wonder whether things will ever get back to normal and how we can take care of our families during these times where we have too much togetherness and not enough space to breathe and connect with others.

Here are some things you can do to nurture your relationship. Remember, it is the thing you love and most and the best protection you will ever have against the stresses of a world turned upside down.

1. This is a threat to yourself and your family and you must deal with your anxiety.

“Anxiety is rampant and people are potentially taking some of that anxiety out on each other,” says Julie Schwartz Gottman, who cofounded the Gottman Institute and wrote several bestselling books with her husband John. The first step is to recognize your anxiety and know that the irritation you might feel with your partner is not really about them, but about your anxiety, fears, and worries.

2. Talk to each other about your feelings.

At times of stress, many of us, particularly men, try and be strong and keep our “negative” feelings to ourselves. Yet, the feelings will come out in some way. You can’t keep them bottled up like a pressure cooker or the lid will blow off. This is a time to be open and share our concerns and worries. Hearing and sharing feelings bring us closer together.

3. Deal with anger constructively.

When we’re stressed we often express one of two feelings. Men often express irritation or anger. Women often express anxiety and hurt. Writing out our feelings or even talking them out to ourselves can help us keep from taking them out on our partner. Often the feelings of one trigger feelings in the other. Men may get irritated and angry which triggers anxiety and hurt in his partner. Or a woman may express her hurt and anxiety and trigger a man’s anger irritation and anger (I’ve discounted my book, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of  Depression and Aggression during these trying times.)

Often underneath the anger or hurt is fear. Unprocessed anger can undermine the trust in a relationship and cause things to deteriorate quickly. My colleague, John Schinnerer, PhD is an expert in handling stress. He offers the following insights about our time together and the pressures that build up:

  • First week of isolation – It’s a vacation. This is new and exciting.
  • Second week – It starts to wear on us.
  • Third week – Our irritation and resentment build.
  • Fourth week – The unity and resiliency once shown begins to give way to anger, panic and, in some families, increased domestic violence.

In a recent Time magazine article by Belinda Luscombe she says, “After COVID-19 cases began to subside in China and people were able to go out again, there was a reported surge in divorce filings. Even now, domestic violence appears to be on the rise.” Similar responses have been reported from all over the world.

Fortunately, Dr. Schinnerer has a helpful podcast available The Next Battlefront for COVID-19 – Managing Anger At Home During Isolation which you can access for free here.

4. If you have children, be patient, be kind, and take time for yourself and your partner.

Under the best of circumstances, children at home, when they would normally be at school, is an added stress. But this is unprecedented. Kids will try our patience, push our buttons, and drive us up the wall. To survive and thrive during these times you have to get creative (Here’s a clip of one of the activities my son, Jemal, created with his son Jonovan).

Taking care of children is important, but you can’t do it unless you are taking care of yourself and your partnership. Find time for yourself. Find time where you and your partner can relax and reconnect. Be good to yourself and be good to your partner.

5. Talk about your money worries.

Unless you’re very rich (and even the very rich worry about money) you have concerns about finances. Again, most of us have concerns, even under the best of circumstances. But this shut-down Tsunami has overwhelmed everyone. Whatever your circumstances, talking about your worries and fears can relieve some of the pressure. Trying to keep it all inside because you don’t want to worry your spouse or family just increases the worry and fear.

One of the benefits of a financial crisis that impacts everyone is that the government is stepping up to help. We have to support those who want the money to be directed towards the people who need it the most, but there is money support coming and those in need will benefit. We are not alone in this. We all need help.

6. Get out and walk.

Most people can get outside and walk. We need to be safe and protect ourselves. But the danger is from other people, not the birds, bees, trees, dogs, and cats. Walking, in nature if possible, not only relieves stress, but it has shown to improve our immune systems. Even if you only go out and walk around your yard, it will help. Plus, you will likely see your neighbors. Community support is essential during these times of turmoil.

7. Adjust to the new normal.

We will get through the immediate crisis. It will likely take longer than most of us would hope. But we’ll never go back to the way things were. The pandemic, the global climate crisis, economic inequalities, the loss of biodiversity, an economic system based on constant growth; are all indicators of a system that is dysfunctional. The good news is that the pandemic, if we understand it correctly, can help us recognize that the old system is not working and we need a new, partnership system, to take its place. I wrote about that in a recent article, “The Meaning of Covid-19: How to Survive and Thrive in the New Partnership Culture.”

I look forward to your comments. If you’d like to read more articles about how you can stay healthy in body, mind, and spirit, check out my blog here.

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