Stuck Together – Now What?

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Keeping your relationships healthy during the COVID-19 outbreak.

By Matthew S. Mutchler, Ph.D., LMFT

With the continued escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a lot of anxiety in the air. People are understandably focused on the precautions we have to take to preserve our physical health and stop the spread of the disease.
Across the U.S., including my part of Pennsylvania, we are under “social distancing” guidelines. My governor put out a “stay at home” order that affects most people in my community.
For many, being forced to stay home has advantages (Hi there, introverts!). I particularly enjoy taking teleconferences in sweatpants. For plenty of folks, staying home is challenging. Even those with strong relationships can find themselves challenged. For those whose relationships are struggling, dealing with a pandemic adds even more stress. I hope that we all can take our forced time together as an opportunity to improve our relationships. Here are some suggestions that might be useful.

1. Be kind. This stress we’re all dealing with is very ambiguous. How long will this “social distancing” last? What if somebody I care about gets sick? What if I get sick? There are no clear answers to those questions right now. Those who have high levels of anxiety to start with are even more anxious now.
It’s OK to be stressed. It’s OK to be anxious. Be kind and patient with your partners, kids, and yourselves! A colleague of mine has been urging people to take a mindful attitude—notice the feeling you’re having, name it, and allow yourself to have it without self-judgment. Show empathy for your loved ones who are struggling with their emotions.

2. Notice how you interact. One of the cornerstones to my approach to therapy is to have people focus more on how they talk to each other than what they are talking about. If you know how to interact (argue, fight, come together), you can deal more readily with the stressors that present themselves on any given day. Take some time to reflect. What cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions do I have when my partner talks to me? What are their reactions when I talk to them? How would I like those to change? How could they change?

3. Listen to understand, not to fix. When somebody we care about is suffering or upset, many people want to help make it better. When that’s possible, it can be a great thing in your relationship. When it comes to ambiguous stress, like with COVID-19, we can’t “fix it.”
Rather than trying to make your loved one’s suffering go away—try just hearing them and showing empathy. Validate their feelings. Don’t just tell them to “stop worrying” or say “it will all be OK”—we can’t promise these things. Their emotions and yours are valid, even if they are unpleasant. It’s important that your partner sees you having empathy and validating their feelings.

4. Spend a pleasant time together. Do something fun, within the limitations we currently have. Watch favorite movies. Binge a series on your favorite streaming platform. Play games. Tell stories. There are a lot of interesting social games happening on Facebook and Twitter, like “share your favorite memory of us.” Activities like these give us a way to pass the time and to get closer to one another.
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5. Spend pleasant time apart. We all need time for ourselves, too. Set aside time each day to do something on your own that you enjoy. We all need a balance of togetherness and separateness. Make time for both.

6. Work on what’s not working. Relationships are hard during easy times, and these certainly aren’t easy times. What’s not working in the way you interact with each other? Take the risk of having a candid and kind conversation about this.
Talk to each other about what might make your interactions better. Be sure you listen, even if you disagree. Brainstorm ideas, and start trying them. If you’ve been seeing a couple’s therapist, keep seeing them if they’re offering online appointments. I’m seeing clients through a HIPAA-compliant videoconferencing host. The federal government has relaxed some HIPAA regulations to allow therapists to use Skype and Facetime to do teletherapy. Some insurance companies are lowering copays for these services. Use the resources that are available to you.

7. Read and use online materials. There are lots of relationship self-helpbooks and websites out there. Two of my favorites are The Seven Principles to Making Marriage Work by John Gottman and The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. Both have great ideas for relationships of any stage—married or not.
Whatever you do (or don’t do), show patience and kindness for yourself and your partner. Keep working to improve your relationships.
Take care of yourselves and take care of each other.

Please know that if you do not feel safe at home, or if there is physical violence in your relationship, there is help available. These suggestions are not meant to be applied in abusive relationships. If you do not feel safe at home, please reach out. More information is available at thehotline.org or Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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