Last week, my husband went shopping at the Superstore.  Somehow while he was gone, I came across a video about wiping down produce and containers brought home from the grocery store.  

It was late when he got home, and I was already in bed, but I wasn’t too tired to mention my thoughts about wiping down the watermelon in the fridge. 

My husband kindly offered to help, even though this is not something he would have done without my prompting. 

His responsiveness helped us to avert what could have been a late night anxiety fuelled disagreement.

Fast forward to a few days later when he got an email from the Superstore telling him to monitor himself for symptoms as a staff member had been diagnosed with COVID-19.  

Now we’re both feeling relieved.  

Under the strain and stress of our current circumstances, many couples are getting stuck in distance, disagreements and hostility. 

The pressure of having kids at home while simultaneously needing to school them, be productive at work and keep up with household tasks is a recipe for increased tension.  

Add to this, the uncertainty and financial tensions that this pandemic has caused and the anxiety of falling ill, and many couples feel pushed to the brink. 

According to recent news, the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on relationships.  I read this week that divorce rates in China rose significantly once the quarantine was lifted,  and while there could be many factors contributing to this statistic, doubt, living in tight quarters under stressful conditions played a part.

Even couples who have a decent relationship, might find that things feels strained over the next few months. Thankfully, stress and strain don’t have to push the two of you apart. There are some evidence-based habits that can help you and your partner navigate the unknown as you both adjust to this ‘new normal’. 

1) Pay Attention to Your Own Emotions

Truth is, most of us are feeling a little messed up right now. Whether it is the uncertainty of your financial situation, the pressures of working out of a makeshift office indefinitely while your kids bicker in the background or the grief of missing out on events you can’t attend or activities you can’t participate in, all of us are facing a certain amount of emotional upheaval.

Yet, the strange thing is, no matter how much we love our spouse, when we feel anxious, overwhelmed or irritable we often take it out on them.

When our emotions are heightened, our vulnerable feelings can comes out as anger and frustration.  We argue over details about about kids and scheduling or opinions about hand hygiene rather than having a more vulnerable conversation.

If we remain disconnected from our own emotional experience and show our more reactive emotions to our spouse, rather than acknowledging what is really going on for us, it’s unlikely we will get the connection and support we need.   

Take the time you need for self-care. Try some strategies to manage anxiety and worry more effectively. Enter into your conversations with loved ones with an open heart.

2) Be Present

Two is better than one, is more than just a pithy saying; connection with someone we are close to literally makes difficult tasks seem less daunting.  In this study, researchers found that study participants estimated a hill to be less high if  they were with (or imagining being with) a close supportive other. 

It’s fascinating; rejection and isolation are coded in our brains in the same way as physical pain.  By the same token, loving responsiveness from a loved one is soothing to our nervous system and helps us to find our sense of emotional balance.  Hand holding has even been shown in fMRI studies to make the pain from a shock less painful.  Emotional connection with a safe loved other soothes our nervous system and gives us the perspective of obstacles being less hard to climb. 

Look for ways that you can can connect, even briefly, to be present for each other in the midst of this chaos.

Can you still have coffee together before parting ways to your own separate parts of the house for your work day?

Or send each other jokes by text?

Go for a walk together before dinner?

Simply being in the same space as your partner is not the same as being present with them. When your partner comes to talk or ask for support, be sure to respond. Put your phone down or turn off the TV. Hold hands. Tune into to what they are saying.

3) Be Responsive

Sue Johnson, a leading couples therapy expert and creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy says that emotional responsiveness is what makes or breaks relationships.

Being able to identify and speak our needs directly in a way that helps our partner to lovingly respond, is an important part of a healthy relationship.  

I truly felt cared about and slept much better because my husband responded to my late night request to wipe down fruit. 

In tight quarters, under emotional strain, it can be more difficult to be tuned into the needs of our significant other.  But doing your best to be responsive to them will undoubtedly go a long way to improving your ‘togetherness’ in this crisis.  

How can you be responsive to your partner?

Sit and truly listen without going to a fix-it response?

Offer a hug?

Ask them what they most need from you?

I believe that this can be a time for you and your spouse to learn to relate to each other differently and grow stronger as a couple through this weird and unexpected time. 

*If you are experiencing intimate partner violence or feel unsafe in your relationship please use this link to reach out for help.*

Marcy is a Clinical Social Worker in Halifax, NS who specializes in helping couples who are distant and disconnected rebuild intimacy and better communication.  If you’d like to book a free 15 minute consultation with Marcy click here. Or call (902) 702-7722 to schedule.

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