My 30 year old patient just told me he recently asked a woman he met on Hinge “Would you rather go on a first date through: FaceTime, Zoom or scream at each other from 6 feet away in a park?” Being quarantined home alone in his apartment reminded him of his deep desire to develop a healthy relationship. For some people living alone, the loneliness they are experiencing helps them prioritize the importance of forging intimate relationships.
For other people who are already in intimate relationships and living together, it may feel like the ultimate stress test. In fact, there has been research that looked at how people cope after tragic life events. In 2002 The Journal of Family Psychology produced a paper after Hurricane Hugo looking at how people in devastated counties of South Carolina coped after this tragedy. In this paper, the authors explained how attachment theorists would predict more marriages and births. Stress researchers on the other hand, predicted that marriages and births would decline and divorces would increase. What actually happened the year after Hurricane Hugo was that they both were right. There was an increase in marriages as well as births and there was also an increase in divorces. What this showed was that life-threatening events motivate people to take significant actions in their lives. What this could mean for us in the time of Covid-19 is that this is a crucial time for people to take stock of their lives and realize what is really important.
For people who are consumed with work, being home full-time gives them the opportunity to focus on their relationships with family. Although there is a great deal of good in this, it can also be very stressful. Add in the additional stress of financial uncertainty, fear about getting sick and losing the ones we love, as well as the fact that there is no end in sight to this. We are all experiencing grief as we cope with the various losses in our lives.
As a clinical psychologist who usually spends my days counseling individuals and couples face to face in my office, I have had to change my practice. I now conduct all of my therapy sessions through FaceTime, phone calls or zoom sessions. As people get more and more anxious, I find myself working harder and longer hours. I am more tired and depleted as a result. Upon reflection, I have learned a lot of useful information through this time and would like to share what I have learned with you so that your relationships do not suffer through this time of Covid-19.
What I Have Learned Counseling Couples During Covid-19 Through Face-Time and Phone Sessions
- Tone of voice is everything. How something is said, not just what is said matters. During my phone sessions, I am much more focused on the way information is stated. Without the distraction of looking at someone, I am able to really notice the pauses between words and how forceful one person can be in her communication style. I can literally feel the other person distancing himself when the communication style is harsh. This reminds me of the significance of modulating my own voice when speaking to my family members. Letting go of the intenseness of our communication may allow us to be heard in a more gentle yet meaningful way.
- Changing Your Praise to Criticism Ratio- According to Dr. John Gottman’s research for a relationship to stay together there needs to be five positives to each negative remark. While you are home spending more time with your partner, it is easy to focus on what is bothering you. Make a conscious effort to instead point out what you appreciate. “Thank you for taking our children for a walk so I could get some work done. I am glad that you are so connected with nature and able to teach our children to value it, too.” “I am so fortunate that you are a great cook.”
- Gratitude is Essential- In a time of loss it is so important to focus on what we still have. Before each of my Facetime or phone sessions I spend a moment thinking about each person I am going to meet. I focus on something I am grateful for because of our relationship. I reflect on the woman who had the strength to leave her abusive relationship before the time of quarantine. I am so grateful she is safe now. She taught me to not waver on your own convictions and the value of being brave. I am, also, grateful for the man who got into recovery one month before the quarantine and is now using online 12 step meetings. He has taught me the value of persistence. Along with being grateful for each of the wonderful people I am able to counsel, I am also grateful for the little things like having a good cup of my favorite hazelnut coffee and having a bright and beautiful office to sit in while I do my counseling. I am also extremely grateful for my white fluffy dog, Rosie who is always up for a walk. If expressing gratitude does not come easily to you, begin with a gratitude journal or a moment of meditation where you just focus on the awareness of what you are grateful for.
- The Value of Touch- The corona virus time of social distancing has decreased our ability to take and give touch, handshakes and hugs. It is so important to affirm the people you are living with by touching them, holding hands and snuggling up. We are all scared in this uncertain time and touch is an important way to help soothe yourself and others.
- Eye Contact Matters- It is important “to be present” while you are in the same house. When you are living in close quarters with someone and not emotionally connected, you may feel lonelier than if you were alone.
- Boundaries are Crucial- When you are spending almost all of your time in the same house or apartment, it is very important to try and respect each other’s space. If you are quarantined with young children, it is essential that you put them to bed early enough to have some “adult time.” Even if you are just going on a walk together, “couple time” is important.
- Don’t be “The Bickersons.”- This is the time to let go of resentments and pettiness. Limiting the toxic energy of fighting is important for your physical as well as your emotional health.
- Keep Your Sense of Humor- While our family was playing Monoply, it struck my 20 year old daughter as ridiculous how hard I was trying to make a deal with our 9 year old who stuck to his guns and refused. She laughed so hard that no sound came out and her eyes teared. I have carried that image with me for days. In a time when our future feels bleak, and there is a sense of heaviness and fear around us, I am glad to have a moment of lightness and joy. Although it is easy to get caught up in the news and the dire situation we are all existing in, moments of levity and laughter are necessary to feed our souls.
- Respect Each Other’s Differences- Each person approaches moments of crisis in different ways. For example, one person may binge-watch news programs and read all he can about Covid19, while the other person may want less information. My husband believes in reading everything he can about the crisis. I get overwhelmed by too much information. When we were in bed he was reading aloud about how Covid19 was impacting NYC and I had to set a boundary. I told him that I would prefer to read my novel, and did not want to hear more about the crisis before falling asleep so I would not have bad dreams or sleep fitfully. Another difference that couples may experience in a crisis is that one person may be preoccupied with fears of taking risks while the other person wants to maintain a more normal life. Lastly, after a disaster, one person in a couple may be more optimistic, proactive and hopeful while the other is more passive, fatalistic and pessimistic. It is not that one person is right and the other is wrong, it is simply that each person has a different style of coping with trauma.
- Kind gestures go a long way. My husband included a pack of Twizzlers when he came back from the grocery store after buying the essentials that we need. We have been watching a lot of movies at home recently and he knows what my favorite movie theater snack is. Whether it is unloading the dish washer or massaging your partners feet caring gestures allow each person to feel valued. These are tough times and little acts of kindness can seem like luxuries that help us get through it.
Although there is no way to “divorce proof” your marriage in a time of the Corona Virus, being aware of the differences that you have, and working hard to care for each other in this stressful time should help you move through this crisis with your relationships intact and potentially stronger. If you are not in a relationship, use this time to be kind to yourself, as well as focus on the positive qualities that you have to offer. At the end of the day Covid19 may take away a lot of things from us, but it does not take away our ability to be loving to ourselves and others.