The quality of our relationships is perhaps the primary determiner of the quality of our lives.
So when our relationships are under stress it feels like our entire life is a mess. And right now many of our relationships are under pressure because we are worried about the pandemic. Our partners are also anxious, and most of us are stuck at home with them all day and night.
Here are some tips to help your relationship get through this.
The Impact of Stress
We all react differently to stress. Animals, including human animals, typically react to stress with either a fight, flight, or freeze response.
If you are a fighter, you might be getting angry and blowing up.
If you tend towards flight, you might want to flee your relationship, or flee from the rules of lock down.
If you are a freezer you might be paralyzed in bed or stuck watching television.
Just acknowledging that each of us will have a different stress response can help reduce some of the tension. And perhaps your different strategies can be viewed as complementary. Each of our differences may also have a positive angle that balances out the relationship.
The fighters might be taking action, helping to get things done.
Partners who tend towards flight might be encouraging you to escape with a long walk, a crazy dance in your apartment, or avoiding the news.
A freezer might be modeling quiet self-care like yoga or mediation or hot showers or cocooning with a good book.
Don’t forget that underneath all of our different behaviors we are having the same feelings: sadness, stress, and powerlessness. You share that with your partner. You have a lot in common. Stress makes us more grouchy. None of us are at our best. It’s helpful to name this and normalize this. It is universal right now.
Pro tip: Can you help counteract the damage of negativity with some extra intentional positivity? For example, when your partner does the laundry, can you not only say “thanks for doing that,” but go beyond and add “it was so thoughtful of you.” With that extra phrase you are telling them you notice that they have a positive trait which is much more powerful than just one helpful action. You are telling them you like who they are.
Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
Now might be a good time to practice getting better at creating and dissolving boundaries.
In relationships you can create boundaries by saying and doing things like:
- “I need a few moments—I can’t talk right now.”
- “I’m getting overwhelmed and I’m going to take a half-hour walk”
- “I’m going to put on my headphones for a little while and listen to music.”
- “Can we talk tonight over dinner about what space means to both of us? And how are we are struggling with space right now?”
When you are at your wits end, can you and your partner have a code word to express that? (One that is different than f-you?)
This may also be a helpful time to dissolve a few boundaries.
You could reach out in new ways and say things such as:
- “Could you hold me while we don’t talk?”
- “Can we take turns talking about our fears for ten minutes and asking the other person to just listen and nod?”
You are home together all day and you may be getting sick of each other. How do you manage the boredom of it all? Take a tip from children. They all know the incredible power of imagination and make believe.
Can you turn your apartment into a dance club or a restaurant for the two of you for just an evening?
Can you film each other and make a movie? Can you give each other different names and role play?
This is great for sex as well as a way to break up another boring night of just the two of you.
Can you play Burning Man in your living room?
Can you recreate your first date?
Can you two make up demarcations to delineate the different parts of your day? You used to have a commute and a social life to create separation and boundaries between parts of your life. Instead, can you work in the dining room but then play in the bedroom? Can one of you spend the morning in the kitchen while the other one hangs out in the bathroom?
Most of all, this is an important time to give yourself and your partner a lot more permission to get it wrong. To be less impressive or perfect. To be more moody and reactive. Yes, we can all increase our self-care, but no one has had experience caring for ourselves and others in a global pandemic.
While we might have a tendency towards Fight, Flight, or Freeze, we can also squeeze in a fourth “F” on occasion: to Face each other with compassion.