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Isolating Together: maintain your mind & relationship in lockdown

"In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner. One such moment is not important, but if you're always choosing to turn away, then trust erodes in a relationship - very gradually, very slowly.”

― John Gottman

The following information is not suitable for relationships where violence or abusive patterns exist. If you are feeling afraid, intimidated or unsafe in your relationship, please reach out for assistance. Thorne Harbour Health can help you.

If you are in immediate danger, please call 000.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, many couples are spending more time with each other than ever before. All of this time cooped up together in stressful circumstances can lead to increased tension, more conflict, and feeling on edge. You might be noticing small things that your partner is doing that suddenly annoy you, or this might be the first time you've noticed them. Once small things may now seem overwhelming. For some people, isolation can remind them of past trauma, triggering intense emotions and memories.

With the added stress of disrupted routines and uncertainty about the future, it's a recipe for relationship conflict. If you're noticing more arguments, it's important to effectively communicate and get support if needed to prevent the conflict from taking over. Remember, all this time together doesn't have to be a negative experience. This time can be an opportunity to reflect on what's important to you, build your love maps, and strengthen your relationships.

All couples experience conflict, including happy ones. Dr. John Gottman's research at The Love Lab found that the success of a relationship depends not on whether or not there is conflict, but on how couples handle conflict when it does occur. Let's explore how conflict gets in the way of the relationship you want, and how you might try to tame it.

Fight, Flight, Freeze

With any real or perceived threat, the body responds to acute stress with a fight, flight, or freeze response. This stress response was helpful thousands of years ago to fight or escape from a predator. But now when your body's nervous system is activated and flooded with hormones, it robs you of the one tool when you need it the most: heartfelt communication.

Basically, in the fight-or-flight response, the objective is to get away from the source of threat. All of our muscles prepare for this escape by increasing their tension level, our heart rate and respiration increase, and our whole basic metabolic system is flooded with adrenaline.

Peter A. Levine

This ‘threat’ can be a misunderstanding, a disagreement, or strong emotion that triggers your fight-flight-freeze response. Fight-mode turns your partner into an enemy, flight-mode turns them into a stranger, and freeze-mode shuts you both out. This response leads people to either lose their temper, flee, or shut down. With arguments like this, nobody wins.

So, what can you do?

First, it might be helpful to remind yourself that these current circumstances in isolation are unusual and difficult. If you're feeling overwhelmed yourself, it's hard to be there for your partner(s). Give yourself permission to focus on your own wellbeing and to be imperfect as you try new things. Try to find space for yourself in your home or time apart if possible. Sometimes we need time alone to recharge, self-regulate, or to appreciate a new perspective.

Seek to understand

When emotions rise up, it can lead to catastrophising thinking such as 'seeing the worst, not the solution.' Try emotional problem solving by putting the 'fix' in fight, flight, or freeze with seek to understand. Ask yourself:

  1. What's wrong?
  2. How does that make you feel?
  3. What's the worst thing about that?
  4. How can I help?

Once you have done your emotional problem solving, you can move to solve your practical problems when the emotions feel less intense.

Try using I-statements

I-statements can be a useful tool in conflict resolution. In the heat of the moment, we can sometimes use tactics of humiliation or criticism, like "you always do this," "you're lazy," "you never do this right." Instead, make statements that start with "I" instead of "You." With I-Statements, you are focusing on how you're feeling about something and the behaviour, rather than putting your partner on the defensive.

Some examples:

  • "I feel sad when you don’t listen to me because…” instead of "You are not listening to me"
  • “I feel frustrated when I have to tidy up the messy clothes” instead of "You never put your clothes away; you're lazy"
  • "I feel disconnected from you when you're on your phone so often" instead of "You're always on your phone"

NOTE: Be careful of simply disguising an accusation or a criticism by putting ‘I feel’ in front of ‘you’. The idea is not to judge or criticise the other person’s behaviour but to share how it makes you feel when they do it. (https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/i-message)

Position yourself to a new perspective

In an argument, try to listen the way you would listen to a friend, or a colleague. Would the listening be different? Or imagine a particular person by your side who could help maintain a position of calmness or curiosity (or whatever might be appropriate for you); how would this enable you to listen in a different way? Finally, try to imagine a version of yourself that was in touch with 'what is important' rather than 'being right.' In thinking about your hopes and wishes for your relationship, hold those close as you listen to what your partner is saying.

Remember that the problem is the problem, not you or your partner(s)

Sometimes we fall into a 'blame trap' of who is right and who is wrong. This leads to an impasse, leaving no room for understanding or change. Instead, remember that the problem is the problem, not you or your partner(s). Use this to team up with your partner against the problem.

Turn towards your partner instead of away

Any moment with your partner provides an opportunity to turn towards them, or away from them. Your partner will make attempts to get your attention, affirmation, or affection. Showing interest, being affectionate, or paying attention to what they say are all examples of turning towards your partner for connection.

Don't beat yourself up if you have moments of turning away. We can't always turn towards 100% of the time and one moment of turning away is not important. A pattern of turning away is what might signal an issue in the relationship.

Solve your solvable problems

All couples have solvable and perpetual problems, according to Gottman. Perpetual problems are related to fundamental differences in lifestyle, values, or personality, and may never be solved. Instead, focus your energy on solvable problems like housework, childrearing, and sex and intimacy.

Don't forget the power of repair

Arguing is a normal part of being in a relationship, and sometimes this can lead to a rupture. It's important to have a good system of repair, especially if you've exploded or said something you regret later. Don't forget an authentic apology to repair any rupture. Examples might include "I've let anger get the best of me, I'm sorry" or "I wasn't listening because I was so upset, can we try this again?"

Take a time out

It's okay to communicate that you need to take a break from the conflict for a while. You might decide to go for a walk, get in touch with a hobby, or reset with a mindfulness app like Smiling Mind or Headspace.

If these strategies aren't working for you, try to 'press pause' on the conflict to overcome gridlock. Ask yourself, will this still matter to me tomorrow? Next week? A year from now?

Getting support

Alcohol and Other Drugs (AOD)

Alcohol and drug use might increase conflict in your relationship. It's important to discuss any concerns when everyone is sober. If you are worried about your alcohol or drug use, you can contact our Alcohol and other Drugs Service on (03) 9865 6700.

Relationship Counselling

Relationship counselling involves talking with an impartial listener in a confidential, non-judgmental, supportive and respectful environment. The counsellor will encourage you work through issues with increased awareness and understanding. If you feel like you and your partner are 'stuck' with more conflict than you can cope with, please call our relationship counselling service on (03) 9865 6700.

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Jake Peterson is the Team Leader of Counselling at Thorne Harbour Health.

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