Building relationship resilience during self-isolation
Developing relationship flexibility
One of the key ingredients of a strong and resilient relationship is the ability to adapt flexibly to changed circumstances. While flexibility is helpful, the way we respond to change can also reveal the ways in which power and responsibility operate in our relationship. This post addresses the question: when change comes, how do we decide who should now do what?
Coping with change
One advantage of being in a happy and successful relationship is the support that each partner provides to the other. But sharing the burdens of life is only half the story. A flexible relationship has a built-in capacity to cope with change. Sometimes we choose the change, and sometimes it chooses us. Sometimes one person can no longer do what they used to, or they no longer want to. We grow, develop, and adapt to fit the demands of life. Our goals and aspirations shift as we each pursue our own version of a good life.
Every relationship involves some kind of division of labour: some of these relationship roles (“breadwinner”, “home-maker”, etc.) are decided by aptitude, some by interest, and, in traditional heterosexual relationships, some still by gender. You might remember, for example, former UK Prime Minister Theresa May as recently as 2017 talking about domestic chores being divided into “boy jobs and girl jobs.”
However, when change comes, we need to know how to flex with it. If we are too rigid in our expectations of ourselves and our partner, we can end up locked into unhelpful patterns of coping that stifle opportunity for self-expression, fairness, and fulfillment. The more we struggle to force an outmoded and clunky system work, the harder things get. Conflict will never be far away.
How was it decided…?
If we want to be adaptable we need to understand and communicate our expectations. So, when you notice that the way you do things is either already shifting or has become unhelpfully stuck, it can be useful to ask, “How was it decided…?” For example, how was it decided who does the shopping now that we need to shield a vulnerable person? Or, how was it decided how we deal with a member of the family having to go back to work?
What did you notice? How well have you made clear, shared decisions about who does the family finances, or whether you should re-book your holiday, or start cycling to work, or any other of a thousand decisions, small and large?
What recurring patterns did you notice about how decisions are made? Could you say how you would know whether one or each of you is unhappy with the way things are done? How might you try to renegotiate something that’s always been done that way, because, well, that’s the way we’ve always done it?
If you’d like to explore together the issue of joint decision-making, there is a useful and simple practical technique that can help. It is called the powergram and was devised as part of the PAIRS relationship programme.
First, you make a list of all the relevant areas in your relationship that involve some kind of decision-making or responsibility. Then, you assign each of those areas to one of five categories:
- My decision (or responsibility),
- My decision (or responsibility) with your input,
- Our shared decision (or responsibility),
- Your decision (or responsibility) with my input, and
- Your sole decision (or responsibility).
This is what it looks like laid out as a Venn diagram. The powergram has a number of uses. For example, it can help us think about our current ways of doing things and how well they are working. We can also use it to consider what changes might be needed, especially in light of our current, extraordinary circumstances.
Have a think about all the areas of life you might need to consider. The following is a non-exhaustive list – you could choose the ones that apply to you or come up with your own:
- Recreation and leisure,
- Household chores,
- Family and in-laws,
- Friends and socialising,
- Spirituality and religion,
- Money and finances,
- Substance use,
- Physical affection,
- Sexual intimacy,
- Physical health,
- Mental health,
- Conflict management,
Try it yourself
Perhaps you and your partner might each do a separate list and then come together to see how similar or different they are? Or perhaps you could sit down and do it together? There are two main goals: 1) to get a better understanding of what each of you thinks and feels, and 2) to come to shared decisions about who has responsibility for what.
When you’re deciding on a new division of labour or responsibility, whatever you decide has to feel fair and be acceptable to you both. A solution that only works for one of you is no solution at all. Neither of you should end up feeling that you are carrying an excessive practical or emotional burden.
In truth, it might take a bit of negotiation – keep calm, stay connected, and remind yourself that the reason you’re doing this exercise is to ensure that you work well as a team. Your ideas might need to change as circumstances change, so this should be a living document, not a tablet of stone. Have a look at the sample below for some ideas and then develop your own version.
- Issue or activity: shopping for groceries
- My sole decision (or responsibility): if we have to go to a local shop, I’ll go alone at a quiet time
- My decision (or responsibility) with your input: I’ll keep the shopping list up to date, you let me know if we run out of something
- Our shared decision (or responsibility) – we need to agree: we’ll sit down each evening and update each other on our food supplies
- Your decision (or responsibility) with my input: you check the availability of delivery slots for online shopping and keep me informed of times when we need to be available
- Your sole decision (or responsibility): if we need more medical supplies, you’ll go to the pharmacy at a quiet time
Time alone versus time together
There is another use for the powergram that you might find helpful. Most couples need to balance time together and time apart. This can become an issue under enforced lockdown, even as in many countries the lockdown is starting to ease slightly. You will need to change the column headings somewhat. So, instead of thinking about decision-making and responsibility, think about time together or apart. The headings could look like this:
- My time completely alone,
- My time doing something on my own but with you present,
- Our time together,
- Your time doing something on your own, but with me present, and,
- Your time completely alone.
Then, when you’ve got the headings, list your preferred activities under each of them.
When you think of ways you spend time together, or apart, or when you are simply in each other’s presence without being actively involved in what the other is doing, ask yourself what that time means for you? For example, you might need to help your partner see that wanting to go for a walk or run on your own isn’t meant to be a rejection but a way to decompress? Or, that wanting a mealtime together with no phones to distract isn’t intended to steal away private leisure, but a way to be connected and comfortable in each other’s company?
I appreciate that some activities are not necessarily easy things to compromise over. I hope that the format of the powergram might help you to have more open, constructive conversations about what you want and why it’s important to you, even if you don’t always agree. After all, we all have our sensitivities. If we can share what’s important to us, and why, then it’s easier to give a little ground. And, as a consequence, we probably end up getting more of what we want than we otherwise would.
I hope you found this post helpful. For now, my very best wishes to all. Let’s keep each other safe, look after ourselves, and, above all, try to be kind.