Niamh Delmar is a Counselling Psychologist and Mental Health freelance writer. Here, she shares her advice for couples who are struggling in lockdown.
Many couples have been in a bubble during the pandemic. Due to restrictions, their interactional and activity outlets have likely been significantly reduced so partners who travelled with work, or were out all day, are now grounded. While many have enjoyed extra time together and shared new experiences, some couples are discovering that absence really did make the heart grow fonder.
Psychotherapist and Relationship Counsellor Caroline Burke finds the situation has highlighted and amplified aspects of the relationship which are problematic. She relates how it can become a battlefield where it is all about who has the best weapons and armour and, of course, nobody wins.
People have been reflecting more on their lives, careers and relationships. A sense of mortality instigates a desire to live life and love to the full. Being in a stable and healthy relationship has a positive impact on mental health. During adversity, a solid relationship yields a micro 'in it together' attitude. Recent studies from Ireland and the U.S. found that negative relationships, especially with a partner, is a contributing factor to depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation*.
Stress levels have risen with financial difficulties, job loss, overload, exhaustion, schooling at home and illness. A new division of labour and shifting roles needs a strong foundation. Research has found that one of the factors that sustains relationships is being your partner’s ally during stressful periods. With a pandemic thrown into the mix, each partners’ reserves get depleted and the dynamic moves from an ‘us’ to ‘me’ position.
Covid related issues can also create tensions and differences of opinions. Solicitors have reported an increase in separation and divorce cases. Some couples are stuck living together due to finances, delays in separation or other circumstances. Staying in a relationship to keep the family intact is often cited as a reason to stay. And fear of change. The more that has been invested, the harder it is to leave.
Constant arguing is a fall-out, and is detrimental to psychological and physical well- being. When couples fight, excitatory neurotransmitters and hormones are produced. Claudia Haak, a developmental Psychologist conducted research on the effects of prolonged fighting on couples and found it increased blood pressure and heart rate. Exposure to ongoing relationship conflict is a significant contributing factor to chronic stress.
Tension is further exacerbated when partners turn to screens, social media, recreational drugs or alcohol. Relationship conflict impacts on the entire family unit. Children with parents who can resolve conflict positively, experience better mental wellbeing and are more likely to experience healthy relationships later in life.
In a world that has been turned upside down, children need, more than ever, a stable base. Physical intimacy can also suffer in a crisis. Libido is affected by exhaustion, stress and other factors. For many partners, sex does not start in the bedroom and needs to be preceded with emotional connection.
Psychologist and sex Researcher, Marieke Dewitte asserts the pandemic can limit opportunities for intimacy, with more conflict and less sex, but that it is quality, not quantity that matters. So rather than let the relationship fester, there are interventions couples can initiate.
1. How does it make you both feel?
Clinician and Researcher Stan Tatkin developed a psycho biological approach to couples’ therapy incorporating neuroscience and asserts that the content of any argument doesn’t matter. While money, time, mess, sex and children are top triggers, it is the way partners interact that impacts negatively.
2. How are you communicating with one another?
Tone of voice and non-verbal communication are usually at their best during the dating period but get neglected as time goes by and stressful events arise. Be aware if your loving gaze has morphed into a stare or your tone sounds uninterested.
3. Are you communicating in an adult and assertive way?
Caroline says that communication is key and that one of the typical mistakes couples make is "mind-reading" – expecting their partner to know what they need without ever telling them. The other pitfall she sees is listening with a view to responding, as opposed to hearing what the other is saying.
Caroline recommends managing our expectations of ourselves, and each other, which will also alleviate some of the stress. It can be well worth minding your language and using ‘I’ and ‘we’ statements, rather than accusatory "you always do that" type of dialogue. It is healthier to express how you are feeling, rather than attack.
4. Do you both have space?
Giving each other space and understanding differences is key. One partner may need more time alone while other may be more extraverted. Empathy is a powerful antidote against conflict. Pause to imagine what it like to be in their world.
5. Are you having fun?
Make time to share new interests, activities and fun. Bring back whatever used to bond you in the past.
6. Do you have experiences to look forward to?
Studies have found that positive anticipation contributes to well-being. It helps a couple focus on what they can do, despite the current situation. Let your imagination take you to the positive experiences you will share, when it is safe to do so.
7. How do arguments end?
Couples find it beneficial to agree on an exit strategy when arguments start to brew. An agreed signal can be used if a line is being crossed and fight or flight mode activated. Agree to disagree, or leave it until emotions and reactions are steady. Distract yourself until you calm down. According to Relationship researcher, John Gottman, defensiveness is the enemy of problem-solving.
8. What are the pros and cons?
It is useful to assess what are the healthy aspects of the relationship and what are the unhealthy ones. Write it down and explore all solutions.
9. Are your needs being met?
Try a ‘needs’ exercise by writing down what you need in this relationship to make it work. Ask your partner to do the same, then exchange. Leave it settle for a few days before you discuss then see what changes can be agreed on. This can be reviewed every few weeks.
10. Are you working on all aspects of the relationship?
To work on the physical connection, it helps to work on emotionally bonding, affection and understanding libido.
While many couples go through peaks and troughs, others struggle to cope and may need professional help with a relationship counsellor or a mental health professional. Those providing help need to be well informed about the diversity of couples and the new landscape in which they live. Relationship conflict is different to abuse, which is when your physical or emotional safety is endangered.
- Psychological society of Ireland
- Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
- The Family Therapy Association of Ireland
- Accord Covid-19 Couples and relationship support. Helpine: 01 5313331
- Women's Aid
- Men's Aid Ireland