- Every sniffle, cough, and unwashed pair of hands has us on edge, and prolonged periods of time-sharing scarce resources, including space, can get to anyone, especially couples. Tweet This
- Fearing the unknown is normal but having healthy and loving connections with others can help us feel grounded and better able to take on the challenges we face. Tweet This
- Being together 24/7 is something most of us only dream about when we’re dating or engaged. However, after many years of marriage, it may seem more like a house arrest than a fantasy! Tweet This
The COVID-19 pandemic represents a combination of two types of stress that can harm a marriage: acute (event-related and often time-limited) and chronic (or long-term) stress. Every sniffle, cough, and unwashed pair of hands has us on edge, and prolonged periods of time-sharing scarce resources, including space, can get to anyone, but especially to couples. In fact, in China, one province has already seen an increase in petitions for divorce immediately coming out of their community quarantine efforts. “Underlying conflicts” that came up as a result of being confined together for a month straight was given as the reason for the increase in divorce requests.
Many of us are dutifully heeding the counsel to stay at home as much as possible to “flatten the curve.” We began doing so, thinking that it would be over fairly quickly (14 days or so). However, as we’ve now been living with social distancing for roughly a week, we may already be experiencing the chronic nature of this stress. And, the future is uncertain as to whether or not two-weeks will be sufficient; a longer time period may be required.
So, how do we protect our marriages from the coronavirus? Here are some tips.
Understand that when humans get stressed, they typically do “more of the same” in response.
If you tend to be a person who likes to take control of a situation, you’re more likely to ratchet up your efforts to control things when you’re feeling stressed. The person who typically gets more passive in response to stress may end up feeling more overwhelmed and back away from efforts to control the situation. This makes it imperative for couples to remember how the other person responds to stress and understand that neither end of the response-continuum is inherently dysfunctional or better than the other. Both responses, rush-in or hold-back, have their place in managing both acute and chronic stressors. Couples who can acknowledge and then discuss both positions as having strengths and weaknesses will be better equipped to handle their differences.
Understand your unique pattern of interaction as a couple.
Couples tend to develop identifiable patterns of behavior over time and either learn to change their part in the pattern, accommodate one another, or experience repeated conflict. Some common patterns that arise in times of prolonged stress and contribute to a decline in overall marital satisfaction include: pursuer/distancer (one person wanting to talk the other avoiding the heart of an issue); attack/withdraw (one person comes on too strong verbally and the other does not engage at all); attack/attack (both people come on too strong); or withdraw/withdraw (both partners avoid potentially difficult relationship situations).
These patterns can be amplified when emotional resources are low. A good friend of mine, who is a family therapy educator, helps his therapy students learn this by saying, “when anxiety is high, options go down.” Our anxiety-induced tunnel vision can limit our ability to respond to our partners in healthy ways. It is important to remember that each one of these patterns can be modified to a healthier way of interacting. Knowing how you show up, and your specific role in the pattern, is key in being able to make a change in how you interact in healthy ways with your partner.
Be intentional as a couple in how you spend your time during the quarantine.
Keep a routine and plan the day out. Striking a balance between work obligations and child care can ensure that neither spouse is feeling the entire burden of childcare alone. Being together 24/7 is something most of us only dream about when we’re dating or engaged. However, after the passing of many years of marriage, it may seem more like a house arrest than a fantasy! Couples need to understand that time apart can be necessary to keep each person connected. Some of this time apart may come from work obligations, but some of it might be needed just to have some downtime or a way to recharge.
Being together 24/7 is something most of us only dream about when we’re dating or engaged. However, after many years of marriage, it may seem more like a house arrest than a fantasy!
Be aware of each other’s social needs.
While a quarantine might feel like a godsend to an introvert, it could be a form of torture for an extrovert. Knowing that your life-of-the-party spouse hasn’t seen any friends in weeks might prompt you to inquire how things are going. There might also be a temptation to take things personally when your extroverted partner comes across as bored or disinterested with just being with you for an extended period of time. Wanting to connect with others doesn’t mean your partner doesn’t also like being with you. It probably has more to do with how he or she recharges and stays centered. On the other side of things, don’t assume that your homebody, introverted partner is loving every minute of the quarantine. Even introverts get something out of being connected to others and crave that connection. They probably just do it in different proportions with fewer people compared to extroverts.
Make a plan together on how to manage the household, childcare, and work, checking in with each other frequently.
This is a good time to include children in a family council and check in to see how they think things are going. Being open and honest with the children, and each other, about what is happening, how long the family will be living this way, and answering questions (at developmentally appropriate levels) will go a long way in helping everyone regulate their own emotional energy. With good emotional regulation (the ability to know what one is feeling at a moment in time, having the ability express it, and remaining calm without lashing out or cutting off from others), couples can be there for each other (and their children) when the omnipresent crisis seems inescapable.
The coronavirus pandemic has elements that represent acute and chronic stressors. We are going to have multiple opportunities to share aspects of ourselves with our spouses and loved ones. There will probably be times when we are not at our best. We will become emotionally dysregulated, maybe use a curt tone or harsh words, or maybe go inside ourselves and cut off from those around us. Being able to get back on track with our relationships will require a forgiving heart as well as a willingness to ask for forgiveness and to attempt a second (or third) try at managing this crisis together. And, as with most crisis events, there is still a lot of unknown regarding what lies in front of us. Fearing the unknown is normal but having healthy and loving connections with others can help us feel grounded and better able to take on the challenges we face.
Steven M. Harris, Ph.D. LMFT, is Professor of Family Social Science and Director of the Couple and Family Therapy program at the University of Minnesota. He is also the Associate Director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project and a member of the National Divorce Decision-Making Study research team.