For some couples, staying at home during COVID-19 has been a blessing. It has opened up opportunities to improve communication, discover new idiosyncrasies, and spend quality time pursuing mutual interests and hobbies. However, many couples have also noted that being cooped up with their partner has led to the discovery of more areas of improvement within the relationship. With the increase in contact, it is not unusual to experience more frequent arguments and difficulty coping with the simple annoyances that were once easily managed. The negativity in the relationship may seem like it is one step away from disaster, or for some, a return to old ineffective patterns. However, this difficult time can provide a chance for personal and relational growth, which can lead to a deeper level of companionship.
Strategies for coping with tension at home:
1) Pause. Although it is very tempting to respond right away, take a few moments to assess yourself. Take into consideration your physical sensations (i.e. Are you sweating, experiencing heart palpitations, fidgeting, or grinding your teeth?) Chances are these physical reactions are accompanied by emotions (i.e. anger, anxiety, hurt or sadness.) At this time, you may want to calm your physical and emotional response by engaging in a calming technique. Pausing and calming sets you up to have a more successful communication than an emotionally reactive one. Some easily accessible techniques are:
Controlled breathing practice. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 1, breathe out for 4, repeat until you feel increased calmness.
Grounding technique. For example, the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
Singing. Reciting lyrics to a comforting song.
2) Rationalize. When you feel the intensity of your emotions has lessened, consider the situation that triggered your emotional response. Is the argument over something you would have been unbothered by before the pandemic? Is it about recurring patterns that never seem to come to a resolution? According to the relationship therapist, Aoife Drury, people tend to believe that others are experiencing the same emotions and thoughts about a situation as them. Thus, it is important to consider alternative possibilities for your partner’s behaviour. As you analyze the nature of your argument, consider the unhelpful thinking styles that lead you to feel more negatively. Some ineffective cognitive patterns to consider are:
Assumptions without evidence - Making assumptions about what your partner is thinking and feeling (e.g. “He is just doing that to get back at me for continuing the show without him!”)
Overgeneralization - Overgeneralizing your partner’s behaviours (e.g. “She ALWAYS leaves dirty dishes around the house for me to pick up!”)
Labeling - Placing negative labels on your partner, yourself, or your relationship (e.g. “I’ve gained so much weight since the lockdown. My partner must be disgusted with me because I’m fat.”)
3) Decide. After you have considered your thought patterns and the alternative possibilities to your partner’s behaviour, you can make an active not reactive decision on how to respond.
Listen. Your response may involve making yourself open to listening to your partner’s perspective. Listening to their concerns may dispel some of the assumptions you made about their emotions and behaviour. Listening can be difficult and may require patience by fostering an open and curious perspective. Your partner may not share your coping skills and have trouble calming down. They may struggle to describe their emotions or communicate their thoughts through harsh words. Encourage calm sharing while actively listening.
Communicate your emotions and thoughts. Try and move past communicating only angry emotions which often trigger defensiveness in others. This may require you to share more vulnerable emotions such as anxiety, hurt, and sadness. When you share your thoughts with your partner, try to avoid placing blame, making assumptions, or threatening to issue punishments (e.g. threatening to end the relationship).
Take a time out. Another way you may respond is by temporarily walking away from the argument. Sometimes it may be helpful for both you and your partner to take a longer time to calm down and think about the problem before you are able to have a constructive discussion. Other times you may realize that neither of you have the emotional resources to appropriately address the complexity of the problem. Work, family, and personal issues may be more pertinent and you may have to address these first before you are able to unpack your problem in your relationship. Before you decide to take a step away from the problem, clearly express to your partner your need for distance from the problem. However, keep in mind that temporarily distancing yourself from the difficulty does not mean you should slip into a habit of persistent indefinite avoidance. A time out is a pause with intention to return. It may be helpful to establish a date/time to check in with yourself or your partner, on your readiness to discuss the difficulty.
If you continue to find the tension in your relationship overwhelming or feel you and your partner may need another perspective, you can also seek the help of a couples’ therapist. By sharing the burden of your problem with a professional, you may find discussing it more manageable and hopefully come to effective decisions on how to move forward.
Until next time!