Will your relationship survive the pandemic?

My husband and I have been married 38 years, and as with most relationships, we’ve had our ups and downs. And I confess that since we’ve been staying at home together, there have been moments when I’ve thought it might be the end of us as a couple. You see, although we have a lot of common interests, our basic personalities are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

If you are familiar with Myers-Briggs, he is an ESTJ and I am an INFP. As opposite as you can get. For example, as an E (extraversion), he loves being around people and being actively involved in groups and events. It energizes him. In contrast, I am an I (introversion). While I enjoy interacting with people, I am quite content to be alone and to work in solitude. I can curl up in a corner reading a book or working on my blog and podcast for hours. He’s frequently on the phone chatting with friends and family. Another difference is that he’s facts and I’m feelings. We still struggle to understand each other’s point of view. Common responses when either of us is trying to explain something. Me: Why do you need that level of detail? Him: I have no idea what you’re talking about. I need facts, not concepts.

All and all, I think we’ve been managing fairly well since the middle of March when we decided it was wise to stay put. Just don’t ask for details about those times when we haven’t.

More divorces?

How about you? Are you discovering wonderful new things about your partner or are you planning your escape? It’s too soon for statistics in the United States, but people who work in the divorce field expect there will be a rise in divorce filings in the near future. Italy and China have both seen sharp rises as stay at home orders have been lifted and people have been coming out of quarantine.

Carol Hughes says the same is expected to happen in the U.S. Carol is a marriage and family therapist in California. I recently interviewed her and Bruce Fredenburg, also a marriage and family therapist in California. They’ve each been in practice for the past 30 years and co-authored a book called Home Will Never be the Same Again: Adult Children of Gray Divorce. In the near future, I’ll air a podcast with them about their book, but I also interviewed them about the challenges the pandemic is presenting to couples who’ve been on lockdown together for months now with no end in sight.

Carol compared the lockdown to being in a war zone with an invisible enemy — the virus.

When you’re in a war zone, you experience traumatic stress during the crisis. When things calm down and the war is over, you may experience post-traumatic stress.

Carol Hughes, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Stress and more stress

A lot of people are not even aware of the amount of stress they’re under because they are in the thick of it and trying their best to manage things. But think about it. If you are staying at home, what has become more difficult or more challenging for you? Are you worried about finances? Your job, if you’re still working? Do you have children at home and are trying to juggle, well … everything. If your children are adults and on their own, do you worry about their health and safety (even more than usual)? Do you long to hold your grandchildren? Are you trying to help your elderly parents? Are you now older and worried about your increased risk of getting infected? The list of stressors could go on and on and on.

Here are some signs of stress that you should pay attention to you (in you or your partner).

  • Increased irritability
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Bad dreams or nightmares
  • Change in appetite
  • Over or undereating
  • Wanting to sleep a lot

Make an assessment

Carol recommends taking the time to assess your mood throughout the day.

Am I mostly sad? Do I feel more angry than usual? They can be signs of not adjusting well to what’s going on in our lives. Arguing more, withdrawing, some people withdraw instead of arguing or showing their anger. Anger turned inward can become depression.Yelling at the kids, wanting to kick the dog. All of those kinds of things or any behavior change that seems different than how they usually are should be considered.

Carol

Even the people we love dearly will irritate us to some degree, says Bruce, and it’s going to be amplified in this current situation. That includes older couples who’ve been together a long time and usually get along.

Their body sometimes hurts more, which can make them feel cranky, or hearing loss or just a sense of not being able to feel good, just never really feeling well. And all that can really intensify when you’ve got to be in the same place around the same people all the time.

Bruce Fredenburg, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Problem-solving

Bruce says the first step to solving a problem is to realize that you’re in one. COVID-19 is a monumental problem, we’re definitely in it, and most of us have never gone through something like this before.

Might be a good idea to try cutting yourself and each other a bit of slack.

People should try to be more positive with each other and give each other grace and know that a lot of the reactions they’re having with each other could be them acting out of this traumatic stress that we’re all experiencing. There’s no way we could not be experiencing it.

Bruce

How do you usually relieve stress? Go to the gym? Out with friends? Dancing? A lot of what people usually do isn’t possible right now. So we need to figure out what we can do to help calm us down and try to do it on a regular basis. Learning how to meditate, for example.

We need to practice mindfulness. I liken it to going to the gym. If we don’t work out and build our muscles, when we need those muscles we don’t have them. We have our calming muscles, so to speak, that will help us calm our reactivity, which is a normal human reaction to stress, stressful times, and trauma.

Carol

Even if you can only manage a few minutes, meditation can help you feel better. I wrote a blog post about mindfulness meditation, which you can read here: Cultivating Mindfulness in Turbulent Times.

Too busy to take even a few minutes? Bruce says a good yawn might help calm you down.

Yawning is really good for your brain. When you do a real yawn, it’s almost impossible to hold a thought in those few seconds, and it helps to reset the brain to a lower state so that whatever is irritating you becomes more tolerable.

Bruce

Another suggestion from Carol — move your body. Any way you can. Stand up and stretch. Go for a walk inside your house or outside remembering to keep a safe distance from other people or wear a mask if that’s not possible. Turn on some music and dance. With yourself. With your partner. With your kids. Join an online fitness class or find a video you like.

We need to physically move our bodies. It shifts our state of mind and helps calm that reactivity. When people have anxiety, the first two things we tell them to do is learn diaphragmatic breathing and move, even if all they do is walk around their desk at work or up and down the stairs. Whatever shifts our reactions is okay.

Carol

Resources

If nothing seems to be working, be honest about how you’re feeling. Reach out to someone you trust or to a mental health professional, especially If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Another serious concern is that in any kind of crisis like this domestic violence increases. If you don’t know who to contact for help, here’s a list of mental health and domestic violence hotlines that are usually available 24/7.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline, For any victims and survivors who need support, we are here for you, 24/7. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522.
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline1-800-662-HELP (4357), (also known as the Treatment Referral Routing Service) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889 is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
  • Veteran’s Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or Text 838255

Final words of wisdom

Here are some final words of relationship wisdom from Carol and Bruce.

Try listening deeply and not thinking about what you’re going to say. When we’re deeply listening and really trying to understand what the person is feeling and saying it brings about healing.

Carol

Ask yourself do I want my relationship to die on this hill? Choose your battles. And be aware. Remember that the first step to solving a problem is to be aware that you have one. Then figure out what the actual problem is and not just the symptoms.

Bruce

Bruce also recommended looking into the research John Gottman has done on relationships. Gottman says there is a magic ratio of 5 to 1. For every negative feeling or interaction between you and your partner, there should be five positive feelings and actions.

I’ll end now so we can all get going on that last one. Final words: Be kind, be kind, be kind. These are extraordinary times.

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Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. She now hosts and produces the Catching Health podcast and writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.