In an earlier post, I wrote about the psychological short- and long-term effects of quarantine. Now that we are in a longer-term quarantine, you are probably seeing how these reactions are affecting your relationships, especially your marital relationship.
You may have already decided to divorce, even started the process, but are not yet separated. Or this confinement may bring on the “final straw” that tells you, “I want a divorce.” Family law experts predict a spike in divorce filings after the quarantine ends, as occurred in China.
The sadness, anger, irritability, anxiety, and confusion feel intensified because you and your spouse are confined to your home most of the time. No one was prepared for this. People in difficult marriages tell me that they feel trapped, want an escape, struggle with the stress of uncertainty about the future, anxiously fear the disease, are climbing the walls with boredom, and feeling lonely.
Yet, in fact, some marriages may improve when partners use this unexpected “quality time” as an opportunity to repair their relationship.
How are you coping?
Introverts may feel comfortable with a quieter lifestyle and enjoy more time at home. One person told me she loves having the time to read, listen to music, take walks, and focus on her painting. Extroverts may suffer from a lack of activity and contact with others. Another reported that he immediately set up Zoom so that he could “socialize” with his friends and work with his team in a “virtual office.”
Ideas to help you cope:
Limit your exposure to the news. It is easy to compulsively check the stats every hour or to focus on the latest developments from Washington, but that is not so good for your mental well-being.
Make something. Baking, building, sewing, gardening, art, music—these activities give you a sense of control over something when we have so little control over the pandemic. If you bake cookies, for example, you could share them with neighbors, keeping social distance, of course. At the end of the day, it feels good to have something to show for your efforts.
Get organized. Clean out your closets and cupboards. Sort through and organize your photos, something I have put off since 1992. Tackle the chores you’ve procrastinated on, like cleaning out the garage or the basement.
Get outside. Take a walk, alone or together. Set up a virtual walking “date” with a friend and chat on the phone while you walk.
Stay connected to your social circle and family. Use Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom to have a “virtual lunch or dinner” with loved ones. We had eight families in eight different locations on a Zoom call to sing “Happy Birthday” on my grandson’s first birthday. Make a special effort to reach out to your friends or neighbors who live alone.
How is your relationship going?
Is too much togetherness driving you crazy? Or are you loving it? Here are some ways to manage it:
Structure is important. Before the quarantine, your life was structured by many activities;now you need to set up a new structure.
Create a schedule. Include specific work hours (and non-work hours). Schedule time for exercise, and if necessary, for tutoring your children. If you are bickering (or worse) with your spouse (or future ex) create a schedule that minimizes your contact with each other. You can take turns dealing with the children or making meals. You may not have considered birdnesting before; read about it here.
If you can create a détente, perhaps you can work together on chores, cooking, laundry, cleaning the litter box, and childcare issues. If you argue a lot, divide these chores up and share the responsibilities.
Give each other space. Even if you are getting along well, create separate spaces for each of you, if possible. Everyone needs some alone time. If you are in conflict, having privacy and a separate space is even more important.
Let your spouse have their reactions and practice calming or self-regulating your own. You and your spouse will manage your reactions to this situation in different ways. Fortify your capacity for patience and even reassurance (for yourself and your spouse). It can feel like an emotional roller coaster, and some cope by expressing emotions while others try to distract themselves from their negative feelings.
Cultivate compassion. Catch yourself in the act of bickering and just stop. Work to cultivate compassion for what you are both going through. It is tough for both of you, and you will get through it more easily if you can contain the bickering.
Use this time to build better communication skills. Whether you divorce or not, this will be a valuable investment in your future relationship.
Cultivate your listening skills. Communication is not just about talking. Usually listening is more important than speaking. Listening is also communication.
You are in this together, so share your experience. If you can set aside your differences, you can share your fears, allow your feelings to show—grief, confusion, lack of control, etc. There is no “right” way to deal with something we have never faced before. Check in to see how your spouse is doing—and make sure your attitude is open, curious, helpful, and empathetic. Listen without judgment and avoid minimizing your partner’s feelings with platitudes. Especially avoid complaining (about your spouse), blaming and criticism. But do deal with conflict by problem-solving, staying respectful, and saying what you want and need. At the same time, respect the other’s wants and needs without criticism, rejection or stonewalling.
Now that you have this “quality time” together, find ways to reconnect. Games, movies, and puzzles can bring in some fun energy. Include your kids, if you have children.
If you are trying to repair or strengthen your relationship, remember to be a good friend to each other. Focus on the positives: Tell them what you admire about them, look for the “silver lining” or the benefits of quarantine, such as the quality time you always wanted. Share your hopes and dreams, too. If you need more support or help, many therapists have adapted their practices to working on Zoom or other formats.
Maybe the best you can do is get through this without too much conflict. When life returns to whatever the new normal will be, you can pursue a separation or divorce if that is your choice. For some, this unprecedented situation is also an opportunity to come together and work through the tensions or heal some past wounds. History tells us that life-threatening events can cause more divorces, but it can also strengthen marriages.
This essay first appeared in Psychology Today
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020