On any given day, relationships are challenging. During a pandemic, they’re under the pressure-cooker. Forced into confined spaces with their partners 24/7 with seemingly no reprieve, couples are struggling under the pendulum of social isolation. Then there’s the added pressure of having children home but still required to distant learn, financial burdens caused by job loss or a drop in income, and the unrelenting anxiety that comes with not knowing when this will all end. Covid-19 has become the ultimate test for couples.
There’s a popular expression about wedded bliss: “’Till death do us part – but not for lunch.” Partners may have committed to sharing a life together, but most of that time was spent apart. With the pandemic causing lockdowns, couples are spending a reported 20-plus more hours a week with only their partners for adult company. It’s the antithesis of what human beings crave most during a time of such painful uncertainty: the comfort of community.
In this new dynamic of constant-togetherness, there’s ambiguity as to what constitutes as healthy and unhealthy conflict. Dr Sarah Rasmi, Psychologist and Founder of Thrive Wellbeing Centre in Dubai, and Helen Williams, Counsellor, Psychotherapist, and Founder of Mindful ME, have been ‘seeing’ couples over Zoom – many of whom are struggling in quarantine.
“The Covid-19 pandemic – and its associated restrictions – means couples are spending a lot more time together. This has provided many couples with the opportunity to reconnect. It’s also led to couples having more frequent and intense conflict than they were before – and it makes sense,” says Dr. Rasmi. “On an individual level, we’re all experiencing stress, worry and anxiety about the situation. In addition, many people are feeling disconnected from themselves and spending less time on activities they enjoy. Taken together, couples – particularly those who struggle with communication, conflict management and negotiation skills – are prone to experiencing more conflict right now.”
During life-threatening situations, people are motivated to take action in their relationships – which can go either way. Some are breaking up or contemplating divorce while others are choosing to get married. A study on 1,200 couples in quarantine in the US, perfectly demonstrates this. According to the study, the majority of couples say their relationship has gotten stronger as a result of sheltering together; over half learnt something new about their partner; and 68% said they’re making their emotional connection a priority. Without daily distractions, many couples are reconnecting. They’re making decisions together. They’re talking more. They’re learning nuances about each other’s lives. There is a silver lining – one just has to scroll to see the countless weddings taking place in front of a Zoom or Facetime audience to be reminded of that.
But for couples with pre-existing tension, the pandemic has plunged the relationship into a downward spiral. Nearly four in 10 married couples reported an increase in disagreements; only 18% are satisfied with how they communicate with one another; and nearly a third of married couples are experiencing a weakened bond since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
“This (pandemic) has opened up and allowed existing wounds and discord that were previously buried by busyness, structure and avoidance to be seen for what they are: major red flags that needed to be addressed,” Williams says.
Oscillating between stress and fear, partners may take their anxiety out on each other. But consistently talking in incendiary tones and making pithy comments contributes to the demise of a relationship. As does demanding attention, overlooking the other’s emotional wants and needs, and disregarding obvious signs of stress. Williams adds, “Other unhealthy behaviors include not sharing the childcare, being oblivious to your partner’s problems, and spending hours with other distractions.”
Couples are also challenged by different coping styles. One partner might respond to the uncertainty of the situation by binging on the news, while the other prefers watching the news briefly each day. One may focus on maintaining a normal life while the other is fixated on the risks. “Our ability to self soothe is thrown up against the vast wall of uncertainty and frequent changes. Many couples are discovering their partner’s reactions to this stress-filled time are entirely opposite to their own,” says Williams.
The good news is that couples can get through this coronavirus lockdown with their relationships intact. “This is an opportunity for us to deepen our knowledge of our partner and (re)build our friendship,” says Dr Rasmi. She advices couples to set aside some time each day to have some non-pandemic related discussions. Clear communication is also paramount. “Couples who are able to clearly articulate their needs from a collaborative position are more likely to be heard and have their needs fulfilled.”
Expressing fondness and admiration is another game-changer. “Take turns acknowledging one thing that your partner did for you that day – as a partner, not as a parent or provider. Describe the emotional impact it had on you and back it up with an anecdote so that your partner understands why it was so meaningful.”
Ultimately, the key to ‘making it through’ lies in a few rudimentary principles: kindness, teamwork, cutting each other a little slack, and when things seem insurmountable – remembering this won’t last forever; it’s just a prolonged moment in time.