Relationships during COVID-19 and isolation

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Many of us working from home may be finding that small things that our partner does become increasingly irritating. They chew way too loud, rock on their chair incessantly – have loud conversations interrupt us too often. We know that working and living together can cause strain on any relationship, let alone with social isolation in the mix. The stress being faced by couples during this pandemic has caused our relationships not only to be tested, but also placed under a microscope.

In China they experienced a surge in divorce applications after social restrictions were lifted, and they were able to leave their homes again. Additionally China also experienced interpersonal violent (IPV) rates to surge. Similarly we expect Australia to experience similar outcomes. Stress of having children at home, financial concerns, fear of falling ill and social isolation can create the perfect storm. So what are some of the strategies that we can implement to ease the strain on our relationships.

1- Reduce criticism. Pointing out errors and mistakes can always be inflammatory- but during a crisis it is egregious. Rather than focus on what they have not done, rather focus on what they have done. For example blaming a partner because you are fearful of financial security wont change a situation. But sharing why it makes you fearful, allows empathy, insight and emotional connection. It is also really important to let your partner know what you appreciate they have done for you. Allowing a more positive perspective and appreciation of the relationship and your partner. Perhaps setting a new ritual where each partner shares gratitude at the end of the day. This can be about each other, or about other areas in life that you are grateful for during this stressful period.

2- Space to decompress. High stress places a microscope on relational coping skills. It can also trigger memories from the past, making us occasionally overreact when incidences occur. So learning to ask questions and take time to actively listen to the answer, can have a positive effect, by allowing us to engage our more sophisticated cognitive functions. Often talking when we are too stressed, irritable or emotionally flooded is one of the more detrimental things we can do. Learning to take time out when either partner starts to overreact, yell or become irritable is vital. Take time to physiologically soothe or decompress- then returning to listen and share what upset or triggered you can changes relational interactions. However, it is imperative to inform your partner what you are doing, and that you plan on returning to the discussion.3-Let them feel differently to you about the current COVID-19 crisis. Our partners may not have the same opinion about the pandemic as we may. This is not wrong, but may just be a sign that they are interpreting the virus information in a different way. Have some empathy, which means do your best to guess and name what emotion you hear your partner is expressing. For example asking them why they see that as a possible outcome, rather than fighting to have your opinion heard. A safe conversation works when both parties get to talk and be heard- regardless of differences.

4-Autonomy in isolation. It can be hard to get some alone time when in COVID-19 isolation. Often we find ourselves working together at the same table or room, supervising children, eating all meals together etc. Whilst there are many positives to this, alone time is essential. Scheduling when you may have exercise alone, a room to read alone, a bath alone or any activity that you get to indulge your own needs is a good idea. Sitting down at the beginning of the week and working out your new schedule allows this to be addressed.5-Plan your timetable. Making a calendar on Sunday mornings and marking it with all the points where each partner has little flexibility. and building from there, can be a good idea. So rostering things like work meetings, home schooling, alone time, dog walks, personal exercise and domestic chores can help with the smooth running of the week.

6-Take your arguments elsewhere. Your children don’t want to see you fight. Some couples opt to go for a walk to discuss any issues that may have arisen during the day. Its often one of the best ways to resolve conflict and allow you to listen- walking your body can help move rigid thinking, and allow you to be more open to a partners perspective. Children also have fear and uncertainty around the pandemic, and as parents your role is provide safety and security for them. Taking your disagreements away from them- even if it is only to the back garden- protects them form unnecessary conflict.

7-Respect boundaries. Even though he or she might not look busy, your partner is not just always available for discussions during the workday. We are getting to see our partners in often totally new surrounds- in a professional realm-which varies immensely from personal time. Whilst we may not be able to physically see the boundaries- highlighting by asking if someone is available, establishes good routines and clear boundaries and reduces intrusion.

8-Express you needs. One error that is often made by partners is the expectation that the other person should know what you need from them. They don’t. An example may be that you may want you partner to cook dinner every second night, or help with other domestic chores. However often couples struggle to know they really need or want form each other until its too late and become disappointed. Men are often raised to supress feelings and women can have a propensity to care for everyone else they ignore their own needs. So using this isolation period to really think about what your needs are, and ask you partner, can improve relationships.

There is little doubt that we are facing unusual circumstances for all relationships where we see the professional and personal facets of each other merge. Viewing this uncertain period with a more positive outlook on how you can improve your interactions, and intentionally making time for each other is important. When we have many aspects of our life amalgamate into a confined space, it will be challenging. But actively focusing on what, and how you can improve can bring benefits as we are forced to slow down and really value the people that are around us.

Alinda Small
BPsychSc., MScMedSH.