Love in the time of coronavirus: part 1

Building relationship resilience during self-isolation


"Be kind"It can be a big ask suddenly to find yourself living with your partner in isolation with no clear end in sight. Much as we might love each other,  we aren’t really designed to spend quite so much time in close proximity.  As a relationship therapist, I have been thinking about ways that might help us cope better with this situation. In particular, I’m wondering whether this might be an opportunity to build more resilience into our relationships.

“The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast.” 

― Gabriel García Márquez: Love in the Time of Cholera 

For me, the quote above from Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera captures rather nicely the ongoing, daily work that is building and maintaining a successful relationship, even at the best of times. This is, without a doubt, a very stressful time for many of us. We might have concerns about job security, paying bills on a reduced income, or the prospect of ill health, or even death, for vulnerable loved ones. These worries put us at risk of becoming more preoccupied and less emotionally available to support each other.

We have already seen some evidence of the toll that self-isolation can take on couples and families. It has been reported that in some regions of China there has been a striking increase in the number of couples filing for divorce after having spent “too much time together”. In the UK, Baroness Shackleton of Belgravia told peers at Westminster that divorce lawyers are predicting a “very likely” rise in the divorce rate following enforced joint isolation. Apparently,  the peak times to consult a divorce lawyer occur after periods where couples face long exposure to each other, such as over the summer holidays and at Christmas.

In a similar vein, retirement is a major life change where familiar routines and roles are disrupted as couples find themselves spending a lot more time together. Retirement can place a severe strain on a relationship, as reported in a study by Skipton Building Society It found that a third of the 660 retirees surveyed said they spend much of their time arguing about minor issues. Thirteen percent admitted that they “irritate each other beyond belief”.

Keeping safe

Both severe and chronic stress have an impact on the mental health of individuals that can spill into the relationship.  If you are concerned about your mental health during isolation, you might find it helpful to look at the UK government’s advice. Relationships might also be under severe strain at this time as we have fewer options to escape from each other’s company. Domestic abuse charities are concerned that this situation could lead to an increase in violence as reports emerge of a spike in cases in China and in the number of calls to domestic abuse charities.

In the UK, the official government website is very clear on reporting domestic abuse: it states that “Domestic abuse or violence is a crime and should be reported to the police – call 999 if it’s an emergency or you’re in immediate danger – the police take domestic violence seriously and will be able to help and protect you.” It has a helpful list of other organisations who can offer support. Women’s Aid is offering a LiveChat service that you can reach out to for advice and support. 

Looking after your living environment

There are many things that contribute to a successful relationship. Many of them aren’t even about the relationship: they include having a secure home, good health, and a safe and satisfying lifestyle. No one needs the extra burden of worrying about fundamental concerns such as having enough food, adequate shelter, the financial means to survive, or staying healthy. Anything that impacts on our sense of safety will strain a relationship and the stress each of us feels often plays out in how we behave towards each other.

To the extent that you can, I think that tackling life stresses should be a priority. Try to reach out to others if you need urgent support, including friends, family, your local Council, charities and local support groups. The UK government has published advice and guidance to assist employers, businesses and their staff. Citizens Advice has articles on your rights and entitlements during the crisis. Other advice on financial matters can be found on the MoneySavingExpert website, although it is worth checking whether it is up to date. 

Relationship stresses

Lower-level stresses can take their toll over time. They wear away our patience and tolerance if we don’t tackle them. For example, you might find you have less privacy and can’t get outside as much as you’d like. It might be tricky to create quality time together or get help to fix household problems, like a faulty washing machine. You almost certainly won’t be able to see family and friends in person. Your living space might not really be suitable for home working, for example your broadband might be patchy or you don’t have space to have an office separate from where you cook, eat, sleep and relax.

It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, if the stress of close confinement over an extended period of time leads to increased tension and conflict. Enforced isolation with our partner tends to highlight some of our less agreeable habits. Unhelpful coping strategies tend to be exacerbated and can make matters worse.

In these posts, I’m going to try to cover a range of topics to address the sort of problems I’ve just listed. These are the kinds of problems that any of us might face, even as we do our best to cope. I would love to hear your feedback about how well they work for you, as well as your ideas and suggestions.

Understanding conflict

It seems to me that managing conflict is key to our relationship success while we are forced into unnaturally close and long-lasting proximity. There are four overlapping areas where we might improve the way we handle conflict: 

  1. Preventing unnecessary conflict where possible,
  2. Managing disagreements constructively when they do occur,
  3. Dealing with feeling overwhelmed if a conflict gets out of hand, and
  4. Repairing rifts in the relationship. 

I’ve written elsewhere about managing conflict using a rupture-and-repair model, so I won’t repeat that here. Most of the strategies I’ll set out in these posts are about preventing conflict. I’d like to suggest some simple, practical strategies to improve communication, manage our expectations, review our roles, and develop increased acceptance and understanding. In my next post, I’ll write about how we take can learn to take more responsibility for the impact we have on our partner.

For now, my very best wishes to all. Let’s keep each other safe, look after ourselves, and, above all, try to be kind.

Andrew Grimmer

April 2020.

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