It’s unusual times, there is no doubt about that.  Many couples and families are ‘isolating’ as a result of the imposed strategies of COVID-19.  This can be nectar and ‘turn up the volume’ on closeness, connection and care, as couples and families lean into each other for comfort and protection.  Sadly though, one of the symptoms of the COVID-19 on couples can also be relationship tension and distress.  Particularly when there have been underlying relationship issues, mental health or other epidemic stressors like financial hardship or parenting.

If you are coupled it could be important to have some simple reminders and tools on how to navigate these times and maintain a healthy relationship.  These ideas are of course, not too dissimilar to any other time within a relationship, however in this moment, perhaps require more attention and diligence.  

4 Tips For Your Relationship:

1.     Kindness and Patience:  This doubleheader is a stalwart for relationships.  What’s critical about these virtues is that they build mutual respect, a pillar of functional relationship.  Kindness opens up the heart and lets our partner (and children) know that we care, that we see them and that we are available.  Patience helps builds resilience, requires skilled awareness and invites us into the wisdom of our body sensations.  Patience offers our relationship some emotional spaciousness when our relating becomes disjointed or conflictual.  

2.    Fighting Fair:  Conflict present on a spectrum from no communication to all-out war.  John and Laura Gottman have used their extensive research to describe four strategies couples use in conflict:  Criticism, Defensiveness, Stonewalling, and Contempt.  Sadly, there is strong evidence that these strategies will break up relationships.  Of these, couples I work with will often present with a criticism/defensiveness cycle, where one partner is feeling criticised and becomes defensive and the other partner is feeling not important and becomes critical.  Some antidote includes:

  • Each partner taking responsibility for their feelings and minimise blame.  A simple but potent remedy can be to focus on our language.  For example, practice using ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ statements and try and reduce the use of absolutes of ‘always’ ‘never’ ‘everytime’ words. 
  • Take the other’s perspective and do so without judgment.  These are the first two ingredients of empathy.  If you can add any emotional intelligence to this experience you are on a strong pathway to connection
  • Self Soothing when feelings of frustration and anger become intense.  Take a moment to breathe, recognise that you are probably feeling ‘under threat’ emotionally and acknowledge that shutting down or responding with fiery emotions will likely escalate things.  If you need to, take 20 minutes to separate, reconnect with yourself and then try again with your partner.

3.     Time Out and Time In:  It can be really important to honour that in relationships we are in a rhythm of connection and withdrawal.  Sometimes we need more space and sometimes we need more connection.  This rhythm can generate novelty, curiosity, longing, and desire.  Simply understanding this means couples can respond with more kindness and patience if either partner is making an emotional bid for either connection or space.  Something that will be critical if self-isolating.  An important up-skill for partners in understanding this couple dynamic in how it presents in the relationship.  Perhaps there is one partner who’s predominant position is needing ‘space’ (often the partner who may feel criticised and defensive) whilst the other may need more ‘connection’ (often the partner who may feel not important).  These old attachment behaviours are driven by our emotional worlds.  They help us to understand our nervous systems and sustain a sense of self.  This relationship dance is a classic for couples and getting to know each other’s dance-steps is vital.  When both partners are communicating their position with care and protection for the relationship, couples maximise understanding, feelings of cooperation and maintaining healthy differentiation.

4.     More Touch & Eye Gazing:  One responsibility of our Brain stem, an ancient part of our brain that’s all about our survival, is basic physical reflexes.  Like breathing, swallowing, touch, movement, and eye gazing.  Couples who can incorporate some of these physical tendencies into their relationship are likely to switch their brain into feeling safe and co-create a more regulated place to deal with tensions and distress.  Often, when couples interrupt their conflict cycle early, then practice turning towards each other, touching, breathing and eye gazing, they will generate powerful alchemy for connection. 

Sean Tonnet is the Clinical Director Thrive Clinic in Mullumbimby.  A center specialising in relationships.  You can reach Sean on 0415 919 123 or through his website and Facebook page.  Check out more about his practice and support during the COVID-19 epidemic HERE