A few days ago, my attorney sent all of his clients a link to his recent interview with ABC National News, in which he discussed that he and other lawyers across the country foresee a surge in divorces once we’re out of lockdown. With many courts presently closed or operating on reduced schedules, he notes that inquiries from clients and potential clients are burgeoning. He cites the brush with mortality that many of us are suddenly glimpsing as a push for people who are already questioning the strength of their marriages. After all, he reasons, why stay in an unhappy union when people are realizing that ‘life is short’? “We are living in a polarized society,” he says. “And that extends to the home. People are less willing to compromise, less willing to work things out.”
Tension bred by forced proximity is also cited by lawyers in the interview. Nerves are already frayed by stress about work and concern about loved ones’ health; add in the chaos of kids of all ages home from school and canceled internships, financial insecurity and potentially domestic violence increases, and conditions are ripe for a marital meltdown.
Relationship on the Rocks?
What do you do if a relationship is already on the rocks, and your anxiety has nowhere to go but towards your partner? NPR’s Morning Edition host David Green interviewed relationship therapist Julie Gottman and her husband, John Gottman, also a relationship therapist; the Gottman couple is continuing to see patients (virtually) during the pandemic. They offer some suggestions on isolating in harmony with a partner and reducing the likelihood that your union will falter in lockdown. We added a few more.
The Gottmans found that couples will often jump in to try to quickly solve a problem rather than listening to each other’s feelings. Yet often, what should come first is a meaningful conversation. To get to each other’s true emotions, try to take turns listening mindfully and actively. The listener should ask questions to build his or her understanding of what the speaker is saying, then offer empathy, expressly naming the speaker’s emotion to show that the listener is hearing them. Simply listening and understanding can be tremendously impactful. It shows you’re trying to be each other’s ally during this stressful time.
When NOT to Talk
If a conversation is turning into bickering, if the tone is growing negative or aggravated, it might be best to take a break and calm down. Set a later time to talk, when cooler heads prevail. When you’re upset, with elevated heart rates, your flight-or-fight response may take over; it’s time to physically separate and engage in something that calms and soothes you – separately. Once you reconvene, it can feel like a whole new conversation.
Find Your Own Space
It’s never been a more important time to respect each other’s boundaries. Some individuals need their personal space more than others, and if you are both now working from home, it can feel like available ‘office spaces’ are in short supply. As a frequent work-at-home professional, even long before COVID-19, I have made a sunny corner in my kitchen my office. As a first responder, my husband continues to work with the public. If he were home, I have no doubt that I would resent the frequent invasion of ‘my’ office space. Some couples have found it helpful to work in shifts, giving one person the available office space with a desktop computer for, say, the first half of the day, alternating mid-day and using a laptop or other device to work in other areas of the home.
Enjoy Mutual Interests – And New Activities – Together
Some people have started learning new things together – practicing a new language through CDs and texts; playing the wildly popular Animal Crossing: New Horizons game; taking newly-free online cooking classes. My husband and I are less ambitious than that, but we’re having game nights with high-school and college-age children, taking our dogs to the forest preserve for walks, and continuing movie date nights (streaming movies, of course) with cocktails and popcorn.
If this time of forced togetherness is making you feel more anxious or depressed than usual, or if you’re struggling with your mental health, please let us help. Please feel free to visit us at www.namiccns.org. We offer a multitude of resources and support groups for anyone who needs them. Our services are always free.