With the spread of coronavirus, many of our clients are spending 24-7 with their partner which can be challenging, or can bring new levels of intimacy. It is important, therefore, that we teach our clients to protect their relationship during this time of distress, and even to use the experience to improve their relationship.
A Few Words About Marital Stress
During a pandemic such as the coronavirus, additional stress is put on relationships, which can test couple’s patience to a breaking point. Or it can lead to new insights, appreciation, communication, and intimacy.
During normal times, marriages and partnerships experience distress from six main areas:
- Child discipline
Sex: Sex is a way to show intimacy and acceptance, and for reducing stress. However, what happens when partners have different levels of interest, frequency, or styles, or when one partner is not as interested as the other, or one is not interested and the other asks repeatedly? How do they navigate these differences and not become resentful or act out? In these situations, it is difficult to empathize, have patience, communicate, and work toward compromise. For couples who are “sheltering-in-place” in the same location, the physical closeness makes it hard to avoid one’s partner. Differences in sexual desires and feelings about intimacy can be a tremendous source of tension and stress, adding to the general anxiety the pandemic elicits.
Money: During this pandemic, many families are experiencing financial distress. It is important that partners review their finances together. Do they have a budget they both created? Do they need to revise it? Plans mitigate against anxiety. Even with an anticipated deficit, suggest to couples that they create a plan: What bills to pay and which to postpone. Having an agreed upon plan reduces anxiety and supports joint problem-solving to protect the relationship.
Time: Many people equate time spent together with love and commitment. It is important for partners to create quality time together and balance this against daily commitments. Problems occur when one partner becomes resentful when s/he believes that the other is not spending enough quality time together: talking, listening, sharing experiences. During the lockdown of the pandemic, couples may spend a lot of time together, but is it quality time? Date nights are still valuable even when sheltering in place. Encourage your clients to create special moments, special meals, and quiet time together.
Feelings: People do different things to show affection, love, infatuation and sexual interest. How one person expresses feelings may be different from how the other does this. Based on the way one shows love, a spouse might expect his/her partner to do the same; however, if the partner shows love in a different way, the spouse might feel the partner is not showing love at all. Teach your clients to talk, listen, and understand each other’s style of expression, language and intentions; to gently express what they want or need, and be patient with what is offered; and to look for love in all offerings of kindness, affection and sexual interest.
Child Discipline: Partners often have different opinions about how to raise children. One might feel the other is too permissive or trying to be the children’s friend; or too coddling, the “helicopter parent”; or too authoritarian or restrictive, the “tiger parent”. They might also disagree on what comprises “child discipline”. Adults from abusive families often equate discipline with punishment or hitting. In fact, discipline means “teach”, and your clients’ primary responsibility is to teach their children to learn the relationship between choices (behaviors) and consequences; that is, how to think as responsible, self-reliant adults.
In-laws: The extended family often places additional demands upon a couple. For example, in-law’s unwanted advice about child-rearing, or having to tolerate unwanted political commentary, can greatly test one’s patience. Moreover, these trials can cause one spouse to have to choose between confronting his/her parents (to protect the partner) or confronting his/her partner (to respect his/her parents). During the pandemic, many are separated from their parents. Some have lost needed child care. Most are worried about the health and safety of elderly parents’ living in isolation. Encourage partners to support their own and each other’s families and to contact them often.
How can we help our clients protect their intimate relationships?
Teach your clients to comfort each other when one or both are anxious, angry or depressed. Below are some suggestions to share with your clients:
- Begin with accepting your own feelings. Then engage in self-soothing using compassionate self-talk and slow, deep breathing. Then …
- Be there for each other. Give your partner space to “vent”, and do not walk away especially when negative feelings are expressed. Focus on your partner’s needs and use reflective listening to empathize and show attention.
- Say kind things to each other. Complement each other on characteristics you like and respect. Talk to each other with the gentleness, courtesy, respect, and the kindness afforded to a best friend.
- Do small and large favors for each other. Build emotional capital so that when you make a mistake (e.g., inappropriate outburst of anger), you can ask for forgiveness.
- Give hugs (as long as they are welcomed). A 30-second hug will help alleviate your partner’s stress and anxiety as well as create a connection between the two of you.
- During the pandemic lock down is NOT the time to criticize your partner or raise issues that you want him/her to change. It is a time for tolerance, acceptance of the other “as is”, and allowing behaviors that you don’t necessarily like.
- If you believe your partner’s anxiety is unrealistic or exaggerated, remind yourself that this is his/her narrative, the way s/he sees things. Respect it. This is not a time to change the way s/he thinks. Listen and encourage him/her to express his/her thoughts and feelings out loud. If it is unrealistic, hearing him/herself say it out loud might bring that to awareness.
- But, what do you do when your partner does not reciprocate the kindness you are showing him/her? Acknowledge your frustration to yourself, calm yourself, and be strategic. Striking out will not get what you want. Decide if you are able to ask your partner for what you want. Here is how:
- Speak in a gentle, calm voice; tone and volume are important.
- Phrase your request in behavioral terms so your partner can see in his/her mind what you want him/her to do.
- Do not mention what s/he did wrong; don’t criticize; just focus on the desired behavior you want. This avoids defensiveness and opposition.
Hold Sessions using Remote Video / Teletherapy
In my previous blog, we discussed using video or teletherapy. I have had great success using Zoom, Skype and FaceTime. FaceTime is best for clients who are technologically challenged, but have an iPhone. When doing couples therapy, ask them to set the camera so they can sit comfortably and you can see them both. Try to get more than just a head shot. Ideally, they should be in a place away from the kids where they can speak openly.
Assign Digital Homework
Between sessions, have clients document and practice the skills suggested above using an electronic journal software application that includes HIPAA-compliant messaging. A journal application should use tags (brief terms for labeling journal entries) to enable clients to label critical thoughts, feelings, behaviors and coping strategies. Work with your clients to create customized tags for their unique needs. I ask them to create tags associated with each skill so we can track their progress in mastering the skill over time.
During session time, review each spouse’s journal records of his/her behaviors and perceptions of the partner’s behavior. This allows us to address and reduce mutually triggering maladaptive behaviors, and build skills that will result in mutually reinforcing desired behaviors: positive feedback loops in the couple’s dynamics. I do this with my clients using www.CaseKeepers.com.
Some example assignments:
Assignment 1: Create a tag “Be there for partner.” Have both partners record each time that they felt they were there for their partner during expression of positive or negative emotions, and each time they felt that their partner was there for them.
Assignment 2: Create a tag “Reflective Listening.” Have both partners record each time they listened and reflected to their partner what was said. Have them tag the entry and write about it. What did the partner say? What do you think the partner was trying to communicate?
Assignment 3: Create tags “Compliments” and “Acts of Kindness”. Have both partners tag their journal entries each time they paid a compliment or performed an act of kindness. Have them reflect on how this made them feel, and how their partner reacted emotionally and responded behaviorally.
Digital technologies such as CaseKeepers allow me to remain connected to my clients, including couples, and continue skills development to help them protect and improve their relationships.