The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has put a great deal of stress on our relationships. But while some relationships broke down, others were strengthened. We asked counselling psychologist Irene Hatzipapas to look at key lockdown stressors, what was learnt, and how to strengthen your marriage in these difficult times.
Too much time togetherFrom spending much of each day apart, often in the workplace, and having a break from our relationships, we found ourselves being part of a 24/7 couple with less private space and fewer interactions with outsiders.
Lesson: It’s important to make time to be by yourself during the day. Independence, with a secure connection, is what strengthens relationships.
- Keep up your independent friendships, even if you can only connect virtually.
- Don’t neglect your own interests and your “me time”.
- If you are both working from home, discuss what each need during “working hours”, such as quiet time to focus, or use of a particular space.
- Discuss your schedules. Consider sharing a Google calendar so you know each other’s work schedules and can accommodate each other’s needs.
- Include a lunch or tea break that you can take together and catch-up.
- Remember that you are an individual and so is your partner, and you both need to make space and time for yourselves. This is vital for a strong and healthy relationship.
Children at home all daySchools closing for lockdown required a massive adjustment for both children and parents. The burden of having to help with schooling and supervise activities adds to relationship stress.
Lesson: Managing expectations through negotiation and compromise, and sharing responsibilities and setting boundaries, helps reduce the stress.
- Set up and stick to a routine, allocating time for schoolwork, mealtimes and play time. Share parenting responsibilities for these activities and times.
- Be kind and forgive yourself (and each other) for lapsing in parenting duties now and then. Remember, you are not alone. We are all in this together.
Financial stress caused frictionMoney is always one of the most common causes of marital strife, but it became an even bigger cause of friction as lockdown suddenly impacted incomes and jobs were lost. Arguments over money became more frequent and heated.
Lesson: Being on the same page regarding budget and spending priorities has never been more important, and this means setting time aside to talk about finances, in a calm way.
- Timing is everything when it comes to talking money. Avoid raising the subject randomly. Rather try to set aside time on a regular basis to go over your finances together.
- Avoid the blame game. Embrace a solution-focused mindset. You need to work as a team to navigate the tough times.
- Draft an incomings and outgoings schedule and see where you can agree to cut expenses.
- Don’t be embarrassed to seek help from a debt counsellor if you need it.
Familiarity bred contemptBeing together all day, couples became complacent and took each other for granted. They got bored with each other’s company and stopped asking questions, or showing interest in each other’s lives or inner worlds.
Lesson: Never assume you know someone fully. Become more interested in your partner. Showing interest allows people to open up and will give you a better understanding of their emotions. A relationship is a lifetime of getting to know each other.
- Use the time to get to know your partner better. Ask questions like, “What’s something I don’t know about you?”
- Talk about your history. Who were you 5 or 10 years ago? How have you changed? How have they changed? How has your relationship developed?
Romance went out the windowRoutine date nights or quality time that was allocated regularly fell by the wayside.
Lesson: Quality time is essential to a strong, healthy relationship. It’s important to maintain a routine where you turn towards each other and enjoy each other’s company, without any distractions.
- Set aside special time to be together. Cook each other’s favourite meals and focus on each other.
- Compliment and appreciate each other's efforts. Tell your partner what you admire about them. Little affirmations keep the bond strong.
- Fit in “quickies” during the day: hugs, cuddles and kisses go a long way.
- Discuss intimacy and sexual desire.
No end in sightAt the beginning of lockdown, we thought it would blow over after a short period of time. People living together welcomed the togetherness and comfort, and some reported a renewed appreciation of their partners. However, as the period extended periodically, uncertainty and fear caused increased conflict.
Lesson: Conflict is inevitable, especially in these uncertain and stressful times. The good news is that conflict, if it is managed skillfully, can strengthen and deepen relationships. Conflict prompts change, and change can lead to growth if both parties give it a chance.
Irene’s conflict resolution advice
- Be on the same side: See yourselves as a team working toward the same goal. Instead of taking an enemy position and keeping score of past and present mistakes, see the problem as OUR problem, which WE need to figure out together.
- Cool down first: Avoid entering a discussion when your emotions are intense. This will sabotage the conversation. Find a way to self-soothe and calm down prior to discussion.
- Set ground rules: You might agree to putting mobile phones and other devices off during time allocated to each other. Decide what topics and conversations are on the agenda and what’s off limits for now.
- One at a time: Let one person speak at a time while the other attentively listens without interruptions. Use “I” statements to reflect your feelings about a situation. This allows the listener to get a glimpse of your inner emotional world and aids in deeper understanding.
- Avoid judgement and advice: Try to put yourself in each other’s shoes and respond with empathy and understanding. Work together to find a solution or an agreed compromise.
- Schedule a meeting. Set aside a regularly scheduled time to talk about how the relationship is going, as well as any issues that have arisen.
It seems that we will be experiencing the stresses and life-style adaptations of the pandemic for some time to come. Be kind to yourself and your partner, communicate well and solve problems as best you can, and your relationship can survive and even strengthen.