Sheltering in place and social isolation can put strains on family and couple relationships. A happy spouse (or partner) relationship is one of the best gifts that we can give to our children. That is why I asked relationship expert Montrella Cowan for strategies regarding how to address current challenges.
Challenge: Confinement/Too much time at home together
These times can be positive or negative depending on the pre-pandemic quality of the relationship.
On the positive side, there is more quality time. Couples are coming closer together due to distractions and the busyness of life being eliminated. For healthy relationships, be creative. Find new ways to have fun. Ideas include having a date night (perhaps a backyard candlelit dinner) and planning a staycation. Keep the things that were already working in your relationship.
Communication is also key. Validate your partner. Don’t try to convince them that they’re happy when they say otherwise. Rather, say things like “It’s okay. I understand.” in order to validate their feelings and decrease arguments. You can both be right because many thing are a matter of perspective and past experience.
On the negative side, if the partnership was already unhealthy (a relationship of convenience, staying together due to fear, staying together simply for the children, etc.), then the issues have been exacerbated. Couples are being forced to acknowledge that they can’t stand or don’t like one another.
Unfortunately, during these times, past traumas may come up which can trigger violence and abuse in unhealthy relationships. Be honest. Take the pulse of your relationship and confront what is really happening. Reach out for professional help.
Challenge: Different views about restrictions
This is greatly affected by personalities. Many extroverts are losing it during these times. (Introverts are also having a challenging time.) Look for a balance.
Extroverts get energy from people so they need creative outlets. They need to be able to connect with others in safe ways. Isolation kills the spirit of some extroverts. Respect that by going out in safe ways. Also, make agreements regarding exposure to others and how it’s going to be done in a safe way.
Just note that disagreements are exacerbated if the couple is not on good terms pre-COVID anyway. Then, the disagreements are simply a symptom of unhealthy relationships from the start. To be in harmony, communication is key.
Challenge: Economic challenges (loss of jobs and income)
Look for the blessings and opportunities in this storm – although they can sometimes be hard to see. Perhaps the lost job was toxic and not the best job anyway. Look at the loss as a push to start your own business or to move forward and get away from a toxic environment.
These changes are stressful so get help from an objective person like a therapist. A partner’s role is simply to encourage, support and validate. Don’t criticize or condemn partners regarding their job losses.
Acknowledge that grief is part of the new norm. Losses can lead to depression which is a stage of grief. Try to focus on the good because we often attract good when we are in good spirits.
Also, don’t try to do everything alone. Sometimes the person who has experienced loss just wants to talk. Listen without trying to be a fixer. Encourage those who are struggling to reach out to someone. Do so by asking, not telling. For instance, don’t say “You need to see a therapist.” Rather, ask “Have you ever thought about talking to someone?” This puts them in the driver’s seat.
Challenge: COVID-related health challenges and loss of life
Allow yourself and others to grieve. There are five stages of grief.
3. Bargaining (if, then type of questioning)
Note that everyone grieves differently and the order of the stages is fluid. Respect each other’s timing. Understand that talking provides relief. Grief is normal so be patient with yourself and others.
Remember to take good care of yourself. If you’re a caregiver, be especially careful not to burn out by neglecting yourself while caring for others.
Challenge: Mental health (anxiety & depression)
Pre-COVID, over 40 million people suffered with anxiety and over 17 million suffered from depression. The CDC has released information regarding mental health numbers during the pandemic.
Be honest. Stop thinking that you are a therapist and that you are going to “save” your partner. Reach out for help. Don’t be the therapist, get one. Realize that the stigma attached to therapy can sometimes prevent people from seeking the help that they need.
Also, think of therapy like dating. You don’t have to commit to the first therapist that you see. Rather, interview potential therapists until you find one that is a good fit. Their job is not to condemn or judge you.
Often there are signs when loved ones are suffering. Their language and actions give clues:
Verbal clues: “I need help.” “The world would be better without me.” “I want to kill myself.” “I want to die.”
Action clues: giving away treasured things; looking at suicide quiz apps; writing goodbye notes; self-injury and trying unsuccessfully to kill themselves
These are all things that need to be dealt with. These things don’t make you unfit or a failure as a partner. It takes a village and it’s important for those who are really struggling to hear from a professional.
Lastly, I asked for practical suggestions regarding how couples could continue to enjoy their relationships despite these new dynamics. I appreciated Ms. Cowan’s practical suggestions.
1. Keep your date nights. Be creative and have fun.
2. Keep your appearance up. Be the person whom your partner fell in love with. Look good, feel good. Self-care is important.
3. Look for the blessing. This is a time that you can look back on together and share the positives that happened.
4. Try to get a break from the children. There are resources and tutors that can help ease the day-to-day life burdens. Don’t feel like you have to do it all alone.
About Montrella Cowan
Montrella Cowan, a licensed therapist, relationship expert, independent clinical social worker (LICSW), and speaker has been helping individuals, couples and families for over 20 years. She is the founder of Affinity Health Affairs, LLC and a holistic talk therapist and relationship coach, trusted for her high-quality service, knowledge, personal care, and passion to help people have healthy relationships and families.
Relationship expert Montrella Cowan is the author of a new book, “The Purse – An Essential Guide to Healthy Relationships,” that offers timely advice and strategies on how to avoid unhealthy relationships – and particularly how to avoid self-doubt and depression.