If your relationship with your significant other is suffering right now, you’re not alone. Relationships go through ups and downs in the best of circumstances, but the arrival of COVID-19 has put many relationships under unprecedented strain.
Where the spheres of life were once clearly demarcated by the distinct rhythms of the workday, home life, and weekend activities, now many couples find themselves interacting 24/7, often in cramped quarters, with little opportunity for escape. Everywhere is work (or the despair of unemployment), parenting, cleaning, and cooking. New responsibilities have emerged as parents are forced to take on the emotional, instructional, and technological charge of online schooling. Internally, uncertainty about the future, and the fear of sickness or loss from infection, can create a constant buzz of anxiety with periodic outbursts of sadness.
Typical coping strategies fray in this environment, whether a relationship was strong or in need of shoring up before the pandemic started. Couples are finding it much harder, if not impossible, to regulate their emotions.
When distressed, one or both members move to a fight or withdrawal response much more quickly. This, in turn, leads to more arguing, and both people feeling alone, misunderstood, and hopeless. Rather than finding your partner a source of solace and support, which would decrease stress, your partner becomes another burden or stressor to contend with.
Understanding the internal landscape of yourself and your partner:
When working with couples during COVID-19, my priority is to help them see what is happening between them: how they come to set each other off so quickly, fail to understand each other’s emotions or perspectives and move further and further apart from one another.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a tumultuous and unpredictable time for everyone and, as a result, our nervous systems are more regularly in a heightened state of alert. As we worry about both the present and future, we may find ourselves in our reactive stance much more frequently. A reactive stance looks different in each of us, and often people find that their partner’s reactive stance is the opposite of their own.
Seeing our partner in a new way:
The first step to reconciliation and connection is helping couples identify and understand the origins of their respective reactive stances and see the negative cycle that develops as their reactive stances bump up against one another.
Couples feel reassured that they have not married the exactly wrong person (we often feel this way when we are in our reactive stance). Instead, they can see how their respective stances are feeding off each other, creating a destructive infinity loop that needs to be turned around.
Finally, this is the time to take risks by trying to alter your reactive stance while having patience for your partner’s. It is not a time to keep score, to be right, or to harbor resentments.
Decide if an issue being discussed is worth going to the mat for, or if it is one you can let go, without resentment, for the sake of sustaining peace and harmony. If an issue truly matters to you, then talk to your partner about it from the place of vulnerability that underlies your reactive stance. In doing so, your partner is more likely to hear you and be responsive. Then you, in turn, are more likely to feel seen, understood, and connected to your partner.
Understanding how our reactive stance fuses with our partners and learning how to alter our reactive stance so we are more likely to be heard is not easy. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to be vulnerable.