Lately I have been requested to comment in the media about couples mental health during lockdown, and I thought I would share some of my thoughts with you. Mostly the questions have been around how to best communicate, what to do in moments of conflict, how to avoid arguments and how to keep the romance going.
Relationships can be trying at the best of times, add a pandemic with lockdown measures, and we have a situation that can make or break a relationship. Firstly, it’s important to note that all relationships will have moments of disagreements and arguments, whether they manifest in suppressed passive behaviours or outright aggressive shouting matches. The trick is to notice when these arguments are happening and to address issues in a way that is not toxic. It’s OK to have arguments – in fact it is expected, it’s how you end them that matters. How you resolve disagreements. If you end up stonewalling each other and completely ignoring one another, then it’s cause for concern. While a temporary break in communications to cool high emotions off is fine, do not get yourselves into a place where you consistently ignore the existence of each other and walk around in a state of resentment. I’d advise seeking couples counselling if you get to this point. If any form of abuse is present, then it’s about getting out of the relationship sooner rather than later – even in lockdown, there is support available out there.
So how to keep the relationship healthy?
It’s not surprising to learn that we need to verbalise and engage in conversation. We aren’t mind readers; we need to talk in order to be understood. We need to voice our thoughts and feelings in a way that gets the message across and not the defenses up.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find the right words or know what to say. In some cases, with the best intentions, your partner hears a completely different message to what you meant. Perhaps counterintuitively, one of the most effective ways to communicate is to actually listen to your partner. What is their side of the story and how to avoid arguments?
Let’s say you are angry at your partner for not filling the dishwasher. Instead of starting an argument, you might ask ‘what stopped you from filling the dishwasher?’. You want to understand how they understand the situation and their thought process around this. You can then compare that with your assumptions. You might feel that you do more housework than your partner and that you are tired of nagging for help. Your partner on the other hand might view things differently. They might feel that whatever they do is not good enough and so feel reluctant to put things in the dishwasher because you think they should put things in a different way. The argument may not actually be about the dishwasher, but how supportive each party feels by their partner. If your partner answered, ‘oh I’m sorry, I forgot, let me do that now’, then effectively an argument is dodged and dishwasher filled.
Once you have heard their side of the story, then it’s a good time to share how you feel about the issue. For example, ‘it seems like you don’t want help out in the kitchen, and that upsets me’, and finalise with a request. ‘Could you please help me out?’.
Essentially, try to follow these three steps:
- Listen to their side of the story first;
- Then share how you feel about the issue at hand;
- Finalise with a request of action.
If you find yourself in a heated discussion, I would recommend you take a 90-minute timeout and return to the issue at a later time when the emotions have calmed down. Think about your problem as being someone else’s, and ask yourself what advice you would give them. This can give you clues as to how to move forward.
Keep building the relationship
Think of the relationship as a bank. Each partner has an account there, and you want to make as many deposits as possible. Anything that makes your partner feel happy, will be the equivalent of a deposit. Compliments, expressions of gratitude and love, thoughtful gestures, sex and intimacy etc.
Conversely, each time you upset your partner, you withdraw from the account. Being rude and unkind, being emotionally draining, picking fights and arguments, breaking promises, not helping around the house, spending too much money etc. You want to actively keep your account topped up. Think of ways on a daily basis to make deposits. This applies to outside of lockdown too.
Dr Gottman, a renowned couples psychologist, recommends that for every negative interaction, essentially a ‘withdrawal’, you need to have 4-5 positive interactions, or ‘deposits’. So you may as well keep those accounts topped up.
Spend time together
Each couple is different. There are no rules as to whether it’s best for couples to spend time apart if both parties are happy with how they spend their time apart and together. I wouldn’t say that spending time apart is something people have to strive for, there are usually natural breaks in a relationship. In fact, it’s probably more important that couples work at spending quality time together.
Lockdown can provide the unique situation of spending more time with your partner than usual, and this can lead to an increase in intimacy. A few of the couples I have been seeing for therapy have reported an increase in satisfaction with their partner, and one couple who have been unable to be together have suffered. The inability to be close and touch one another has left them feeling very isolated. That is not to say that arguments and frustrations are not present. And in some cases, the realisation that the relationship is not right will surface, which I suppose is a good thing – have this knowledge sooner rather than later.
For those couples who have time on their hands, my advice is to learn more about each other. Make conscious efforts to do activities together: whether it’s organising date nights, going for walks, gardening, solving puzzles, reading aloud for one another, binging a series together or video calling family and friends.
Specific things could be to answer ‘the 36 questions to find love’ by Dr Aaron, or try ‘sensate focus’ exercises (Google these and they will come up), both will increase sense of closeness and intimacy.
Have fun, be creative and allow for your inner child to come out.
For those couples who still have to work and juggle childcare, it’s about carving out some time to connect as a couple. Work out times where you can get alone time to be intimate. Order a take away and relax together. Try not to live like ‘ships passing in the night’.
If you need any help, feel free to contact me for date coaching and together we can make this work.