Many of us are still coming to grips with the surreal experience of living through a pandemic. Yet, here we all are grappling with many of the same questions and concerns, from basic ones, “Are we going to be able to find toilet paper?” to more existential ones, “What is life going to look like in three (or six or nine) months from now?”
Over the past week, a recurrent conversation I have had with friends, family, and colleagues is how we plan to use this time as an opportunity for growth. Whether it be chipping away at our ever-expanding reading list or reconnecting (or connecting more deeply) with loved ones, how will we expand? For couples whose relationships were strained before the implementation of social distancing measures, this may be a fork-in-the-road moment. One path takes the couple down further disconnection that will make salvaging the relationship more difficult; the other road offers opportunities for couples to build a stronger relationship in potentially profound ways.
This blog will focus on two broad opportunities associated with taking the latter path
- The first is for couples to learn/re-learn how to work together effectively as a team. This moment in history has brought one thing into crystal clear focus: we all rely and depend on each other. Indeed, the effectiveness of my efforts in socially distancing depends on whether those around me do the same. Often, as couples become disconnected over time, their ability to work as a team is compromised. Differences in how to load the dishwasher, for example, become a place of further division and alienation. As social distancing measures continue to be in effect, and some of us are forced into close quarters with our partners, problem-solving and finding solutions that work for the couple is critical. Problems that will naturally arise include: Who is going to get groceries? How many hours of screen time for the children is acceptable? What are the meal plans going to look like? To effectively address all these questions and more, couples have no choice but to keep the lines of communication open. Relying on assumptions and hiding from your partner is no longer an option for the time being.
Here are some tips for couples trying to work together:
- Be flexible, do not nitpick. It is okay to have standards, but you are sharing a smaller, more contained, world with someone, so your ability to compromise is essential. Your place may be messier than usual. Permit yourselves to relax those standards.
- Pause heated conversations and make a plan to return to them at a later time. Set aside time consistently to review any issues or concerns that need to be addressed.
- If you are upset, refrain from criticizing your partner or making “always” or “never” statements (e.g., “You never help out” or “You always do it wrong”). Focus on the challenge right in front of you. Avoid “kitchen sinking” each problem by referring to all your past conflicts.
- Another opportunity for couples during the pandemic is to reconnect through openness and curiosity about each other’s experiences. Couple partners presenting to treatment often struggle to be open and curious about their partner’s experience because they can assume that they’re going to hear something critical or something that implicates wrongdoing on their part. In this situation, partners will often become angry or withdraw from each other, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves all parties feeling frustrated and invalidated.
Questions you could ask your partner might include:
- What is this like for you?
- What are you scared/hopeful about?
- How effective do you think the government response has been?
If you feel that your partner is open and curious about your experience, you will be more likely to feel validated and understood. This is important because the process of feeling heard by someone is a salve for our emotional distress and helps to build intimacy and connection. This might inject goodwill into the cycle mentioned above that strengthens the foundation of the relationship for other changes to take hold.
Taking these steps to improve the relationship will no doubt present some challenges. Psychologists and therapists at CFIR that work with couples are here to help you and your partner implement these necessary changes and to process and work through any issues that might arise. During the pandemic, we offer telepsychotherapy services (e.g., video, telephone) to support you and your partner to overcome challenges and build intimacy and connection.
Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych. is a psychologist in supervised practice at CFIR’s Toronto office. He has provided clinical and assessment services in a variety of settings such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the McGill Psychoeducational and Counselling Clinic, and the Health and Wellness Centre within the University of Toronto. He has also completed his Ph.D. in clinical and