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  • Sharon Draper

Couples, Communication and COVID-19

Uncertainty is one of the most challenging psychological experiences to go through. It’s a natural human reaction to try to feel certain about things in order for us to feel more in control. The current Covid-19 climate makes it very difficult for us to feel in control of anything. There’s financial strain, uncertainty of what the future may bring, feeling limited in our ability to make decisions and having to isolate at home 24/7. None of this was something we chose to do which makes us feel especially helpless in our lives.

Our brains are hardwired for making sense of things. We are constantly trying to make sense of our environment. It makes it very difficult when we try to make sense of something that doesn’t make sense in our minds. So we flit from panic to acting like nothing has changed which inhibits us from coping well and working through it. Also, things are changing all the time, which makes it really unsettling since we don’t feel we have a hold on anything, nothing feels certain.

The main issues I’m seeing are how couples are struggling, being forced together 24/7. Even the healthiest of relationships are arguing more in this current climate. We are all feeling overwhelmed and when this happens, it’s very easy to react and take this out on the person closest to us, usually our partner.

There is evidence that domestic violence could increase during this time since there’s reduced access to resources, increased financial strain and feeling disconnected from usual support systems. Ultimately, we feel stuck.

While there aren’t any statistics yet for this, there has been talk that divorce lawyers are forecasting a spike in relationship break ups during COVID isolation. This isn’t surprising since one of the biggest challenges I believe couples struggle with is having the courage to express our individual needs and desires, out of fear of abandonment. So, we end up creating expectations for our partners (without clearly communicating what these are to them), displace our anger onto them, blame, shame and stay resentful. We didn’t learn healthy ways to communicate from our own parental models (and they didn’t learn from theirs) so we end up continuing this cycle of misunderstanding in our relationships without being able to fully resolve our individual issues. Our partner is a mirror that reflects all our own childhood emotional neglect traumas but we aren’t usually aware of this so we keep fighting with our spouse to try to get them to heal that childhood emotional wound which never really gets a chance to heal.

So, how do we manage potential arguments while we’re stuck at home together?

Identify your stressors that cause you anxiety

Now is the time when we need to become more conscious of our own triggers, needs and expectations. The more you understand yourself in this situation, the better you will be at articulating your experience to your partner to help them understand what you’re feeling.

When we feel anxious or stressed, it’s very easy to react emotionally towards the people closest to us. This then fuels a reaction in our partner, which causes an explosion of emotions that often have nowhere to go so we try to forget about them while resentment builds.

So often I hear couples describing an argument they had to me and they start with ‘This is so silly now that I say it but..’ or ‘It’s such a small thing but it really upset me.'. When you are feeling overwhelmed by a specific event, try to understand the underlying cause / value that is influencing that emotion. This is not an easy process, but if you can try, then you will be able to find ways to live more according to that value and will also more likely be able to help your partner understand what’s really important to you, so that they can understand why you reacted in that way. See your emotions as data informing you of what you value.

For example, if you’re upset because your partner didn’t make their side of the bed (perhaps you used to get out of bed later than them so before COVID-19, you’d usually just make the bed once you woke up) try to look deeper at what this feeling you have is telling you. Could you be feeling undervalued? You might feel taken advantage of, you might feel like your partner hasn’t considered you and expects you to do most of the chores. If you’re able to identify this underlying reason for your feeling, you can then communicate to your partner how that behaviour makes you feel.

When communicating say, ‘this is how I’m perceiving the situation, that you expect me to do everything around the house.' This can start an honest conversation that can help you learn more about each other and potentially grow even stronger. A great tip to help you work through your emotions is to journal what you’re feeling when you feel it. This gives you some space from the reactiveness of the emotion and it can help you process it more in order to understand it.

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” Stephen Covey

Clear, two-way communication is imperative, especially while we are living together in close proximity. Couples often misunderstand each others’ intentions because we expect them to know what we’re feeling. Never assume what your partner is thinking and feeling and never assume they know what you’re thinking and feeling. Don’t expect your partner to process this in the same way that you do. We are unique individuals and everyone deals with crises differently.

It’s your responsibility to meet your own emotional needs

It is not your partner’s or anyone else’s job to make you happy. If you have these expectations, you will most definitely get disappointed. Identify your needs and work out ways you can meet them so that whatever your partner has capacity to give you, will be the cherry on the top.

Be kind to yourself and to your partner

Accept that arguments are going to happen. This is an unprecedented time and we are stressed at a global level. It’s not about aiming to not have disagreements, it’s about being able to repair the rupture that occurs. The same goes for anxiety and stress levels. We are all going to feel this at some point, it’s not about not feeling it, it’s about how you’re able to cope with it.

Self-care to help you cope

Make sure you aren’t working constantly as a way of escaping. Create a balance between work and personal time. Find ways to build your emotional reserves up through self-care activities that help you feel good. Stay connected, stay active, stay relaxed and rested.

Suggestions for individual self-care:

Diaphragmatic breathing, reading, yoga, guided meditation and taking in nature. Remember that it's productive to have pockets of breathing space and pockets of calm.

Suggestions for couple care:

Board games, reading a book together, try to keep doing the things you used to enjoy doing (you might have to be more creative with this now though) and also try do new things together. Research shows that doing new things as a couple can help increase our oxytocin levels which is the bonding hormone.

Redefine boundaries at home

Things are different now, so the allocation of chores and creating ‘me time’ has changed. We need to be aware of the potential triggers that could arise and work through them together as a couple / family. If you can’t pre-empt these potential triggers, see this time as a work in progress and make amendments as you go.

Chores around the house are likely to become an issue since often one part of the couple tends to do more than the other. These silent chores will now become more visible when everyone is at home. People’s expectations could change too, expectations that now both parts of the couple are working from home, chores should be equally distributed. Have a discussion about new house rules. If you have children, work out who can help the children with schoolwork at what time of the day. We need to work as a team.

An opportunity

Try and use this time as an opportunity to grow together and have quality time. Remember, disagreements are inevitable in relationships. It’s not about not having an argument, it’s about how you repair the rupture once it has occurred.

This is a challenging time but, with healthy communication, self-care, curiosity and understanding, couples will be able to overcome this adversity and come out of this even stronger.

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