All over the world, people are being asked to stay at home and help ‘flatten the curve’ of the coronavirus. Self-isolation and social distancing help slow the spread of the virus and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
At the same time, staying at home may be stressful and therefore emotionally and psychologically challenging. Whilst a couple who care for each other can deepen their relationship during this period, those who are struggling with the quality of their relationship may experience deepening desperation and anger.
Here, one of our expert psychologists Dr Nikki Scheiner gives her expert advice on how to minimise the difficulties you may experience whilst isolated with a partner with whom you have a strained or bad relationship.
Why are some couples finding it difficult on lockdown together?
Let’s face it: if you didn’t get on with your partner before the virus, your relationship is unlikely to be improved by being confined with them! Whatever irritated you before will be magnified when you are unable to find a distraction. For many people, going out to work has played a valuable function in stabilising their relationships; without this resource outside the home, domestic tensions are magnified.
Additional worries – health, paying debts, our jobs, the health of our loved ones – are invariably exacerbated by being on ‘lockdown’. Limited space and the absence of outdoor space intensifies these stressors. The uncertainty about the current situation – particularly not knowing when it might end – may increase anxiety and shorten the proverbial fuse.
What are our options?
There are only four options when a situation seems unworkable:
- Get out!
- Put up and shut up!
- Try and change the other person so they understand your point of view.
- Change your response to your partner.
Option number one is clearly out of the question during this time. It just is not possible to start making arrangements to find alternative accommodation unless you are in an emergency and in physical danger. (In this case, you need to contact the police and arrange to go to a Refuge to keep yourself safe).
Option number two – putting up and shutting up – never works as you will simply build up resentment until such time as you either become ill or ‘explode’ – which will only make a bad situation worse.
Option three rarely works either. It is hard enough to change ourselves, let alone try to change others.
So, you need to focus on option four – changing the way you react to your partner, family member and/or children.
What can we do?
During the 'stay at home' period, you can try:
Often, when someone else talks, we are thinking about how we are going to respond. Rather than listen to them, we are listening to ourselves. Sometimes this is because of fear that we won’t be heard or because we think that what we have to say is far more important than our partner’s view. Try simply focusing on their words and identify their concern.
Summarise their words back to them: ‘It seems that you are saying that ….’. This way reduces the possibilities of miscommunications.
Couples in difficult relationships often say to each other, ‘That’s not what I was saying at all; you are twisting my words.’ If you listen actively and then let the other person know that you heard, you are lessening the possibility of conflict.
Sit with your partner/ family member/ person with whom you are having problems.
Each person reflects what they think the other would like to see different in them. If you find yourself saying what you would like to see different in the other person, catch yourself and STOP. Then start again. This is an exercise in self-awareness and self- reflection, not in criticising your partner.
‘Have your say’ without criticising the other
Allow the other person to ‘have their say’ for two minutes. During this time, you must endeavour NOT to interrupt. Then you have your say. Remember this exercise is about respecting the other. No one likes to be criticised or insulted, but everyone wants to be respected. It is important to avoid accusing the other person; instead, state how it seems to you. Replace, ‘You make me feel…’ or ‘You upset me’ with ‘When you did that, I got upset.’ This way of talking also helps you understand that you have some control over your reactions… and therefore responsibility for your behaviour.
If the conversation is getting unpleasant or over-heated, both partners should agree to some time-out, in order to enable them to calm down and reflect on their own contribution to the situation. Go to another room!
This is a form of communication set out by the American psychologist Marshall Rosenberg. It uses practical tools to help us connect with – rather than distance ourselves from – people with whom we believe we are in conflict. Instead of attacking, blaming, insulting, and criticising, it is suggested that we think in terms of our or others’ vulnerability. Changing our language to express our own needs – what we feel, yearn for, fear or miss - and acknowledging the needs of others helps create emotional bonds and leads to reconciliation.
What NOT to do
It is important to understand that needs are not the same as your ‘diagnosis’ or analysis of your relationship. If you catch yourself starting a sentence with, ‘The problem with you is that [you never listen]’ or responding with, ‘’That’s just so typical of you…’, then you are not expressing your needs.
Coming up with a strategy, for example, ‘If you do this/ don’t do that, then we will be fine’ is equally doomed to failure. Telling someone that if they acted in a certain way, all will be well won’t work. Replace your demands with your desires.
How can we improve our relationship?
Adhere to these four steps to improving your relationship:
- State what you observe. Be specific in time (when) and context (where), e.g. ‘When you told me last night at dinner…’. Avoid words such as ‘always, whenever, frequently, sometimes, never, rarely’.
- State how you feel, not your opinion: I felt sad/hurt/disappointed/ letdown/unheard/angry/hurt/helpless’ or ‘I am nervous/ irritated/ scared/disappointed.’ (If you say, ‘I felt that/ as if/like you were attacking me, you are referring to your interpretation or perception of the other person’s behaviour, rather than your own feelings. People can deny that they were attacking/dismissing/ disrespecting you. They cannot, however, deny your feelings.
- Identify your needs/desire/expectation or identify what you sense the other person’s need to be. (Don’t blame yourself; don’t blame your partner). For example, ‘When you shouted at me yesterday, I felt hurt because I wanted to hear that you care about me/ value me even though our views may differ.’
Or, you can try and express what you perceive the other person’s needs to be, e.g. ‘ It sounds like you are fed up/sad/ frustrated that I didn’t spend time with you because you want to feel that we are in this together’. This type of ‘sensing’ may lead to a dialogue where you can gradually learn the need behind your partner’s blaming or disappointment.
- Request a specific action: ‘I’d like you to acknowledge something positive that I have done for you that you value’ or ‘I would like you not to shout at me when you don’t agree with me. Or ‘’I would like you to clear the table after dinner every night.’ Then follow these steps with, ‘Is this O.K.?’
If the response is a resounding ‘No’ and you are accused of being patronising or behaving like a therapist, try and be compassionate and see again if you can understand the unexpressed need of your partner. If there just isn’t any empathy between you, it might be a good idea to find a relationship counsellor online!
Dr Scheiner is available via e-Consultation video calls during this pandemic. If you’re experiencing anxiety or need someone to talk to, you can book an appointment via her Top Doctor’s profile here.