Couple’s COVID-19 Triage. Lessons From A Couple’s Counselor, Part One
We don’t need experts to tell us that post-COVID-19 reality will see a rise in both birth and divorce rates. While some relationships may blossom as a result of this ‘time out,” many will find it difficult and may feel trapped. As a Houston couple’s therapist, I am anticipating an even greater need for relationship therapy help from my clients due to the stresses of COVID-19. But for the time being, I’d like to offer some relationship therapy tips and advice to help you and your partner understand each other, and better communicate.
Are You Feeling Trapped and Overwhelmed?
Desire to flee the scene may be high during these times. Your home has turned into a mission control center and overlapping roles keep multiplying. Some of you may feel that chronic tension and disconnect between you and partner has only amplified. You are feeling trapped. Forget about sex. Not much emotional space is left to process the tragedy of it all, either.
Appreciating The Pause and Connecting
Maybe, you are someone on the opposite side of this reality, appreciating the pause, using the time for self-reflection and what a pleasant surprise – you found a human next to you on a couch. Turns out it is your partner!
Intimacy Can Be Frightening
Well, what do you do with each other in this vastness of time? Have you ever experimented sitting in silence for 5 minutes, looking at each other without any distractions, and realized you were close to having a panic attack? Yep, intimacy can be frightening.
Wherever You are in the Adaptation Process to COVID-19 as a Couple, Here are Some Reminders and Tips to Consider:
Relationship Triage Starts with Taking Vitals.
I invite you to check in with yourself before reading further. What’s the speed that you are going with right now? Are you scrolling to get to the point? When was the last time you paid attention to your breathing? What’s going on in your body? Any tension? If you had to take a guess, what’s your pulse rate right now? When was the last time you checked in with yourself?
If you were really honest with yourself, who do you track the most, yourself or your partner? Chances are that your most active internal monitor is turned on your partner. When we feel hijacked by irritation, anxiety or chronic upset, our knee jerk reaction is to find a scapegoat. And now s/he is in your face, 24/7!
Let’s Remind Ourselves of Some Basics from Decades of Research on Relationship and Neurobehavioral Science.
Reminder 1: Different not wrong.
Implicit and explicit judgment is a silent killer of relationships.
Over 60% of marital and relationship upsets arise from conflicting values, priorities, beliefs, and personal tendencies for which there is no standard.
If you think of yourself as more mature, caring, logical, stable, more [fill the blank] – you are on the high horse of contempt. No matter how strategic you are in hiding it, non-verbals will send the message to your partner loud and clear (they comprise 60% of our communication). Your partner, in turn, might start feeling inadequate, defensive, dismissive and will feel more distant or worse of all, vengeful.
Admitting that you are part of the relationship problem is probably the hardest and most pivotal milestone in couples therapy. This life changing transformation moves the relationship out of the ER into the ICU and back home.
Bottom line, people develop different styles of coping with stress. It’s essential to remember that one is not better than the other. Here are some examples:
Independence First (I.F) vs. Togetherness First (T.F)
During stress, Independence First people don’t just want personal space they need it, otherwise they lose their emotional stability. I.F people prefer relationships where each assumes responsibility for self and prefer to rely on direct requests. They might blame T.F people for being selfishly needy. On the other hand, T.F want relationships in which each assumes responsibility for knowing and anticipating the needs of others. They think that mutual dependency is healthy, and see I.F people as selfishly self-absorbed.
Invest in the Future (I.F) vs. Live for the Moment First (L.M.F)
I.F people delay enjoyment until they fulfill responsibilities, sacrificing the present for an anxiety free future. L.M people combine work and play, prioritize enjoyment, fear that life will pass them by while they prioritize routine.
Predictability First (P.F) vs Spontaneity First (S.F)
P.F people need to minimize chaos, organize lives in predictable ways. Their dreams are around safety, protection. They might criticize S.F people’s way of living as irresponsible/inefficient. S.F thrive on the unexpected, dream of co-adventurers, are open exploration of life, and fear that life will become routine.
Slow to Upset (S.U) vs Readily Upset (R.U)
R.U people experience upset feelings frequently, intensely and use them as agents of change. They value justice and quality over peace/harmony. They tend to criticize S.U people for covering up true feelings and being afraid of emotions.
S.U people have mechanisms that diffuse upset quickly and value harmony and tolerance. They “don’t sweat the small stuff.” They fear if they become upset there would be no end to it. S.U people criticize R.U for being like children with tantrums, see them as negative people for whom nothing is good enough.
Problem Solving First (P.S.F) vs Understanding First (U.F)
P.S.F people (usually also Slow to Upset people) don’t look for sympathy and validation but need concrete ways of action to stabilize. For U.F people understanding and validation comes first, plan for action next. They tend to fear that without understanding and validation from their partner life would feel lonely.
Which are you in each of these? Ask your partner which person they feel they are.
Reminder 2: Be flexible in changing leads.
Forgo the myth of reciprocity. Research shows it’s a recipe for disaster. Assume your partner has your best interest, because s/he thinks you do too.
Scale your anxiety, depression and energy level throughout a day. Ask yourself: “How grounded and present do I feel towards myself, to my partner and kids.” If you are feeling low, share with each other and come up with a plan for the day. Who picks up on what? What are you committed to doing today? If the day is not going as you hoped, check in with your partner, be transparent, renegotiate and modify the agreement. What are your non-negotiables and what are flexible areas where you can meet halfway? If both are low in energy, co-create your “let’s cut us some major slack” day.
Reminder 3: Ground rules for conflict.
Practice stepping back during heated moments when you are feeling flooded. Learn your emotional and physiological response pallet. Reassure your partner that you will return and will give your full attention to hear your partner’s reality/perspective and what’s at stake for her/him, even if you know you are about to slam the door.
For more insights on fair fighting check out this worksheet.
Reminder 4: Practice self-soothing.
Have a safety plan when you feel you are about to lose it.
Your Self-Soothing Safety Plan Might Include:
- Taking your fight/flight adrenaline out for a run or work out
- Calling a friend
- Breathing practice with focus on prolonging your exhales (for faster relaxation)
- Listening to music
- Taking a bath
- Mindfulness practice by engaging 5 senses (tuning in on sounds, things you see, smell, touch and taste)
- Writing it out
- Exploring apps for meditation and mindfulness
Don’t Dismiss Important Sensations By Self-Medicating
If you notice the urge to self-medicate (with alcohol, nicotine, porn, comfort food, social media, etc) or with rage and aggression, these might be warning signs that some parts of you want to dismiss your body’s important sensations.
Give yourself permission to feel the full range of emotions. Breathe through discomfort. It is temporary. The fear that these sensations and emotions will overwhelm your system and stay forever if you let them may pound in your head. Invite them, acknowledge, listen, try to understand what their job and fears are, validate, thank them. You’ll see that they step back, like difficult people do when we validate them.
Reminder 5: Make effective repair.
If you did lose it and said things you regret, acknowledge that your reaction was not warranted. Express genuine understanding about how your reaction might have impacted your partner. Share what you’ve learned about your triggers. Only talk about your reactions. Don’t feel obliged to agree with their perspective either. You can still disagree, but state that you wish you could have expressed it differently.
Schedule time to re-create a better version of the same conversation. To get an understanding, give understanding. Ask open ended questions to genuinely understand what’s at stake for them. Validation is the most powerful elixir for any relationship repair, but probably the hardest to learn and embody in your way of relating. Practice meeting them half-way. Again, what are non-negotiables and flexible areas for creating a win-win agreement?
Use This Time To Deepen Your Bond
Intimate relationships hold an infinite opportunity for mastering our emotional intelligence if we stay open to explore our blind spots and continuously generate curiosity about each other. During this time of standstill, I hope you make it a point not only to make your fights fair but also carve out moments to slow down and deepen your bonds. More thoughts on how to look into your blind spots and strengthen your connection to come in Couple’s COVID-19 Triage Part 2 and 3.
Book recommendations for couples:
You Are The One You’ve Been Waiting For. Bringing courageous love to intimate relationships
(Internal Family Systems) by Richard Schwartz.
Eight Dates: Essential Conversations For a Life Time of Love by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman.
“Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy, Advances from Neurobiology and the Science of Intimate Relationships,” Brent J. Atkinson.
“The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” by John Gottman and Nan Silver.
During these times of trouble, you don’t need to struggle alone. Malaty Therapy can help you get through the challenges in your life, brought on by COVID19. If you’re worried, anxious, stressed, we’re here for you! Call us now at (713) 628-3966 to set up a phone, video therapy session today!
Blog Written By: Christina Levin, LMFT-Associate