Feeling cooped up? Want some alone time but cannot get away from your partner and/or children? Is your partner getting on your nerves? Are your children not working independently enough? Are your words being misinterpreted and are you putting out little fires all day? Welcome to the new normal of the 24/7 Coronavirus relationship. Amsterdam Mama and psychologist Julie Sharon-Wagschal has some tips to help your relationship and your family navigate these challenging times.
It’s tough. Most of us are not used to spending so much time with our loved ones. The Coronavirus is forcing us to be with our partners (and children) 24/7 and this is quite an adjustment for most. Not only are we dealing with anxiety about the state of our world and our health, but we are also working and schooling at home and not socializing outside of the home.
I therefore wanted to share a couple of tips to help you deal with this new situation, so that you come out of this crisis with your relationship intact; and dare I say, stronger. See if you can implement some of these suggestions into your life. They may seem difficult at first, but taking baby steps, or getting back on the horse after you have fallen off, is better than not trying at all.
TIP 1: Schedule a relationship meeting
Start by having a Corona-crisis relationship meeting. This meeting will help get you on the same page and set realistic expectations for the weeks to come. During this screen-free meeting, the two of you can go over the following agenda items (and add any other important topics that you wish to):
- Have a heart-to-heart conversation about how it feels to be in this situation. Really give each other space to explore your worries and other feelings that have come up so far.
- Acknowledge that spending so much time together during such a stressful time affects your relationship profoundly.
- Make a pact to be extra gentle with each other, extra forgiving towards each other, and that you as a team can handle anything that will come your way.
- Agree on at least one time in the day that each of you gets at least 15 minutes of alone time to do whatever you want. Share some things that will help you relax during your alone time, so you have some ideas when that time comes.
- Talk about and agree on how the labour in the home is divided. It has to feel fair to both of you. Write down all the things that need to be done throughout the day, and decide who does what. Be as flexible as you can, and remember the list is not set in stone and can be adjusted at any time (if you both agree on it).
TIP 2: Practice stress-reducing conversations
As the days go by, you will both be dealing with feelings of stress and worry. That’s why it will be important to have daily check-ins where you have stress-reducing conversations, an exercise developed by psychologists Drs. John and Julie Gottman.
A good time to do this exercise is when your kids are asleep, or during dinner, if you don’t have children. It can last anywhere between 5-30 minutes, depending on what’s needed that day. This is not a time to discuss relationship issues, but a time to take turns venting your stress about work, the kids’ schooling, the virus, elderly family members, etc. To have a good, stress-reducing conversation, follow these rules:
- Be curious, listen, ask questions
- Show empathy and understanding
- Take your partner’s side
- Give each other advice or try to fix your partner’s problem, unless it’s asked for
- Dismiss or belittle your partner’s feelings
- Start talking about your own stress while your partner is sharing theirs. Await your turn.
TIP 3: Avoid the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
There are bound to be more conflicts than usual, since you are spending more time together and there’s a lot of added tension because of the situation. To keep conflicts from getting out of hand, avoid using the following four ways of communicating, the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In his research, Dr. John Gottman found that the use of these Horsemen was extremely destructive for relationships.
- Criticism: when you blame your partner for the problem. This includes statements like: “you always/never” and in general convey that there is something wrong with the other. To avoid criticism: say how you feel (e.g. upset, angry, worried, disappointed, etc.) and what it is that you need (e.g. I need you to clean up the kitchen).
- Defensiveness: when you deny any wrongdoing, act like an innocent victim or dish out countercriticism. To avoid defensiveness: see if you can take just a little bit of responsibility for the existing problem. For instance, “Yes, I did indeed forget to do the dishes.”
- Contempt: when you insult, belittle or verbally abuse your partner. To avoid contempt: describe your own emotions and needs. Think about what you do appreciate about your partner.
- Stonewalling: when you shut down and don’t respond anymore. To avoid stonewalling: if you need a break, tell your partner you need to pause the conversation and agree to resume it when you are both feeling calmer. Do not give each other the silent treatment.
TIP 4: Express your appreciation
Every day, make sure to show your partner you appreciate them by thanking them for their efforts, complimenting them on what’s going well and offering massages or other physical affection as a way to relax. Anytime you notice your partner (or anyone else in your household) doing something you like, let them know. It is incredibly important to feel valued. The only way to really feel it, is when it’s expressed to you. Words of appreciation and affection go a long way, and we need it now more than ever.
TIP 5: Don’t forget to have fun
Designate time together where you are doing something fun (like watching a movie or playing a game). Try to keep the Corona topic off-limits. If you cannot resist talking about it, consider dreaming about what you will do once this crisis has passed. What do you want your life to look like, where would you like to travel, or how has your perspective on life changed?
Finally, I want to add that the current situation is going to be a struggle for anyone and any couple all over the world. You are not alone; we are all going through this together. If you find that your relationship is starting to suffer, you can always reach out to a couples therapist. All therapists I know have switched to using video conferencing to continue to support their clients during this crisis, and we all want everyone to come out of this strong.
Julie Sharon-Wagschal is a licensed psychologist based in Amsterdam. She has a private practice for psychotherapy and couples counseling, and is the principle teacher of Gottman Method Couples Therapy in Europe. There are more helpful tips and information about her clinical services at her website: www.balanceyou.net.