Coronavirus lockdown has proven to be a recipe for cabin fever. Here, a relationship expert tells us how to turn self-isolation into an intensive couples therapy workshop.
Love In The Time of Cholera taught us that love is inevitable. Love in the time of the coronavirus, though, has suggested that… well, that life in quarantine can have something of a negative effect on our romantic relationships.
Ostensibly, this is because some couples forced to stay in isolation have since realised that they’re not right for each other. A realisation which, we imagine, didn’t make those two weeks in quarantine fly by any faster.
As previously reported by Stylist, more than 8,077 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in the UK, but the actual number of cases is estimated to be much higher. The number of deaths is now at 422.
As such, Boris Johnson has declared a “national emergency” and called a lockdown. As of 24 March, Brits may now only leave home to exercise once a day, to travel to and from work where “absolutely necessary”, to shop for essential items, and to fulfil any medical or care needs.
Shops selling non-essential goods have been told to shut and gatherings in public of more than two people who do not live together will be prohibited.
Which means, yeah, more of us are at home with our partners than ever before.
We’ve been social-distancing for a few days now, and there’s no denying it was fun at first. After all, there’s lots to watch on Netflix, plenty of audio books to download, and some seriously fun board games to play together, too.We even considered giving our homes the Marie Kondo treatment, too.
It’s only natural, though, that things have gotten tenser as the situation continues. None of us know what’s coming next, and the uncertainty has, judging by the change in tone on social media (from endless coronavirus memes to urgent pleas for people to stop panic-buying, now).
If you and your partner have begun snapping at one another, don’t despair: it doesn’t mean that your relationship is doomed to become cabin fever’s next victim.
In fact, being trapped in a small place together for days at a time can actually prove beneficial to relationships, especially if you treat it like an intensive couples’ therapy workshop.
With this in mind, we reached out to Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, a couples therapist with over 15 years experience counselling people through their relationships’ ups and downs.
Here’s what she had to say.
Why do relationships tend to crumble in extreme close quarters?
In extreme close quarters some people might feel ‘trapped’ in a situation, which can trigger anxiety and defensive responses. We automatically react emotionally when we experience anxiety, which can transfer to our partner, feeding into their own anxiety. This can then escalate reciprocal defensive responses.
How can we make sure we both get some ‘alone time’?
Be honest with each other about needing a little space, and have a conversation about expectation and strategy for the next week or so. Discuss what each one of you needs, what your coping mechanisms are and how you can support each other – but make sure you also have the time and space to take care of yourself.
Is there such a thing as ‘too much’ intimacy?
Some people crave physical and emotional intimacy, while others may dread it. Often these personality types attract: those craving closeness fall in love with those who need space and vice versa.
The experience of ‘too much’ is perceived differently at different stages of the relationship. At the ‘honeymoon stage’, couples are more likely to enjoy ‘too much’ intimacy, and, in long term relationships, couples tend to appreciate ‘alone’ time more.
For some people, ‘too much’ intimacy triggers a past longing that can create anxiety and defensive response. However, a healthy and attuned intimacy might just be exactly what they need. So take a shower, put on something that isn’t your PJs, turn off the TV, and strike up a real conversation with your partner. Because intimacy, the good kind, isn’t grunting at the telly in unison with bowls of Coco Pops balanced on your laps for days on end.
How can we help each other navigate the ups and downs of self-isolation?
Be present for one another and listen with no distractions of screens/work/children. Put your phone down, face one another and say, “I am here for you, how can I help?”
You will naturally want to ‘fix’ the problem, but they may just want you to listen with a sympathetic ear. Remember: everyone copes with things in different ways. While you might prefer to deal by yourself, and your partner might need your emotional presence.
Remember: showing up in a way your partner needs you to means being there for yourself as well.
What’s the best way to express frustrations WITHOUT it blowing up into full-scale fight?
Express what you want and need using positive vocabulary. And STOP using the word “you” in arguments, choosing instead to use the word “I”.
One of the biggest communication mistakes couples make is to talk about their partner in a harsh and direct manner, saying ‘you do/you don’t/you are’, rather than speaking about themselves and what they really want (for example: “I feel anxious about something right now/I need assurance that this will be ok”).
This requires a level of honesty, vulnerability and tact, but it will help to maintain a healthy and happy relationship.
How can we turn cabin fever into couples therapy?
Ask questions, make sure you fully understand and then respond. Whatever the problem, tell them “I’m here for you and I want to support you.” And be sure to reunite at the end of the day and talk about how it went. This will help to bleed off stress from the day, and stop it from negatively affecting your relationship.
2) Start conversations with common ground
Think about what you agree on, your common values and intentions. Express appreciation and play to your strengths as a couple. Think about the end game: what is the goal/vision? Then, decide how you’re going to get there.
The clearer the vision, the more likely our behaviour will adapt to succeed with it.
3) See differences as exciting, fun and healing rather than problems to fix
Your partner is your best teacher for the parts you need to work on within yourself. When you celebrate differences and work as a team, you are stronger together.
Ask yourself what the relationship needs from you. And, above all else, ask yourself this: what story will you want to tell people about your relationship in 20 years’ time?
Of course, Ben-Ari is right: an argument does not spell the end of your relationship. In fact, arguing is healthy because you get to communicate your frustrations and needs to your partner and, if done in the correct way, it will actually cause your relationship to become stronger than ever.
With this in mind, I suggest you consider Professor John Gottman’s theory about “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” when you next find yourself fighting with your partner. It basically asks that you watch out for four “red flags”, and that you do your best to avoid them.
These red flags are:
- Criticism (framing complaints in the context of a defect in your partner)
- Contempt (name calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humour)
- Defensiveness (making excuses to explain away your actions)
- Stonewalling (withdrawing from a conversation, even if physically present)
You can find out more about these red flags, and how to deal with them, here.
In the meantime, here’s hoping that, if we are asked to self-isolate due to coronavirus fears, we’re able to put all of this advice to good use. Because it would be nice – more than nice, actually – if something as beautiful as a stronger relationshop or friendship could blossom out of all this.
Please note that this article was originally published on 12 March, but has since been updated to include new coronavirus advice and guidelines.
Lead image: Daniel Tafjord on Unsplash