Lockdown and working from home can put stress on relationships, but the new normal could provide opportunities for positive changes, according to TIM DOWLING …
The coronavirus crisis has presented couples with an unusual relationship problem: a surfeit of togetherness. Where busy partners once struggled to find the time to be together, they now ration scraps of privacy. Not only has the pandemic reduced our love lives to one, endless quiet night in, it also obliged many people to work from home, to spend all day in each other’s company, under stress and underfoot. When arguments start, there is nowhere to go. So how can couples cope with each other during this difficult, seemingly indefinite period?
The first thing is to be aware of what you are up against: this is about more than a lack of personal space. The uncertainty surrounding coronavirus and lockdown has led to high levels of stress. “Everything is far more intense,” says Andrew G Marshall, a marital therapist. “Not just the togetherness, but the fear and anxiety.”
The problem, according to Marshall, is that our usual coping mechanisms – our techniques for burying trauma – have been overwhelmed and are no longer working. In the past, a lot of couples were able to ignore simmering problems in their relationships by keeping busy. “Keeping busy now feels a little bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” says Marshall.
The writer and clinical psychologist Linda Blair believes we are only beginning to grasp the scope of the stress we are under. “When something traumatic happens to us, our first reaction is to go into shock,” she says. “Because we have to be able to cope, we have to use all our cognitive power to figure out how to deal with it. We can’t waste any on emotion.” We are now becoming painfully awake, she says. “You see this in a grief reaction, and it is a grief reaction because we’ve lost our way of living.”
So far, this all sounds like terrible news, but it is actually the perfect opportunity to make a change. “What you need is a new approach,” says Marshall. Lockdown presents a unique chance to improve the way you and your partner deal with conflict. When arguments arise, whether they are about the washing-up or the relationship itself, Marshall says there is one important thing to remember: “In every argument that never gets solved, you’re probably both right.” Another tip is to avoid piling up grievances. “Keep an argument to one issue,” he says. “If you make it about the washing-up, you will solve it.”
Most people deal with conflict in one of three ways: they go on the attack, they retreat or they try to fix things. The last one sounds like the best, but, in fact, none of them is much use. “You can’t fix something before you’ve examined it,” says Marshall. “It just drives your partner mad and it doesn’t work.” He suggests that, when you discuss issues with your partner, you restrict yourself to the pronoun “I”. Stay away from the accusatory “you”. “You’d be amazed how much time people spend in my room talking about their partner and what they could do differently,” says Marshall. He says the question you should be asking is: “What can I do differently?” because that’s the only thing you have control of.
Speak in turn, if necessary using a “talking stick” (a technique whereby only the person holding the stick may speak). “When you’re holding the stick and you can only use the word “I”, you would be amazed how much less you have to say, and how much more productive the conversation is,” says Marshall.
The question you should be asking is: ‘WHAT CAN I DO DIFFERENTLY?’ because that’s the only thing you can control
With many couples still working from home, the stress of the office has piled itself on to domestic worries. What happens when you see your partner’s work persona up close, and you find it unpardonable? Blair says: “I think what might be happening is that we feel jealous of the other person spending time with someone other than us, even if we say we’re sick of them.”
Alternatively, says Marshall, you may think: “Why can they be so nice at work, but they can’t be nice at home?” There is also the question of work-life imbalance. In many relationships, one partner’s job has barely changed, while the other’s career has been upended. “That polarity is huge,” says Marshall. “It throws up issues about money and other things.”
The main strategy is to maintain, as best you can, a boundary between work and home, to agree on hours and to mark the transition. “What happens when you finish work normally? You go home and that takes time,” says Blair. “Now there is no commute, I would suggest that, at the end of your own work, each of you take a walk, so you have that time.” I am reminded of a – possibly untrue – anecdote about the surrealist René Magritte, who, it was said, put on a suit and hat at the same time every morning, left his house in Brussels, walked once around the block and then returned home to paint all day.
Marshall’s website has a link to a story about a Japanese man whose wife complained about how little he did around the house while they were both working full-time while locked down. The man defended himself by producing a list of 21 chores he performed regularly. The wife handed him a spreadsheet showing the 210 that she did. This imbalance is nothing new, but many couples – or really, many men – have become aware of its extent only during lockdown. And it is, under these circumstances, unsupportable. What is the best way to redress it?
“Make a list of all the stuff that needs doing, which might take a couple of days,” says Blair. “Once you’ve got the list, go through it together and eliminate all the tasks that aren’t really necessary, because we do too much.” She suggests writing each chore that is left on a piece of paper, and take turns drawing the pieces of paper from a hat. The ones you draw are your jobs. You can re-draw every week or every month for a change of pace.
The most important thing to bear in mind is that your relationship has already changed. Covid has altered it permanently, possibly for the better. “We’ve torn away the little fake facade we put in front of the fact that we can’t predict the future,” says Blair. “Because we always make plans. That’s what the cortex is for – it has to make plans or it isn’t happy. But what we have to know now is that those plans are only tentative. That is very freeing: you will not get too tied to anything anymore, because you know it may change.”
Marshall agrees. “We have to live in the now,” he says. “Which is easier said than done, but ask yourself: ‘What is going to help today?’”
Covid Couples Survival Guide:
LEAVE HIM … AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Make time for yourself, preferably somewhere nobody else wants to be. All-weather swimming is one option. The water is not as cold as you may think. Stay toasty and avoid wobbly costume changes with a Dryrobe.
Remember the commute? That golden hour on the train, reading your book, sipping your latte? That time just before people started asking “what’s for dinner?”. Sometimes we DO need the takeaway and not the fakeaway.
KEEP THE CLEANER
You still have a full-time job! Just because you are working from home you should not dispense with any help you can afford, be it housework or childcare, restrictions permitting. The impact of domestic chaos is worse than being squeezed. Buy cheaper wine!
SEPARATE YOUR VIEWING PROFILES
There is no reason to find his Walking Dead next to your Emily in Paris! Audit your digital devices and apps. Run a speed test and make sure you have adequate broadband for work, rest, and play.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE
Who the hell wants to talk about pensions now? You do! As a nation, we’re not very good at talking about money, with arguments about finances listed as one of the leading causes of divorce. Don’t be that divorced ostrich! Use this time to plan. While many financial institutions offer free financial planning services, start by downloading the MABS House Budget Sheet.
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