Life in a lockdown is now a global reality. Most of us are begrudgingly adjusting to the new normal of 24/7 in close quarters to our spouses, kids, and other family members. It is a time of unprecedented stress and financial strain, sparking relationship problems that are pushing couples to breaking point. The demands on both of you may leave you frazzled, annoyed and without sufficient goodwill to give your partner a much needed loving hug.
The bad news is that staying connected as a couple during periods of strife takes time and energy, which may be in short supply. However, the good news is that taking the time to connect with your partner will pay off, now more than ever. With the rest of the world off-limits, the lockdown presents an opportunity to create a safe haven in your companionship. This is precisely the time to deepen bonds and increase connections, rather than disengage and harbour resentment. Attending to each other’s needs and weathering the storm together can solidify your partnership constructively for the long term. Here is a list of some common concerns facing couples in lockdown, as well as tips to resolve them.
Relationship Problem #1: Household Chores
Doing the dishes, laundry, vacuuming and all other mundane household tasks existed before the pandemic. But the lockdown has made life more chaotic. You are all home together, eating, working, playing and schooling. Kids can become mini-tornadoes, upending all things in their path. And there is no escaping the chaos and mess, with toys, crafts, clothing and shoes left strewn all over the place. This makes household chores an igniting tinder in many families.
Arguments over chores even impact households without kids. Being home all the time leaves the mess looking right back at you. Procrastinating and waiting for your spouse to do his or her share can inject unhelpful passive-aggressive behaviour into the relationship. Couples in therapy for relationship problems commonly report that it feels like only one person holds the household together because the other “doesn’t see the mess” or doesn’t care about it. It escalates to feeling unloved and about more than the chores. And the drudgery over the upkeep of the home evaporates all good feelings in the relationship, replacing them with resentment.
Overcoming the problem:
In order to work through feelings of resentment and reduce bickering, consider a family discussion about the deeper symbolism of household chores. Taking ownership of the cleanliness and upkeep of your home demonstrates respect and care for those who live there. When you’re feeling more clear-headed, you can simplify things by creating a chart of tasks that need to get done daily and weekly. Assign them to family members and then post the chart where everyone can see it, like on the refrigerator door.
Even if the tasks are not shared equitable, the assignment can ensure everyone participates. In hetero-relationships, we also counsel male partners to remain mindful of the “emotional labour” women typically carry. These are the invisible tasks of “project managing” the chores chart, booking medical appointments, planning meals, arranging kids activity schedules etc. Most important of all, becoming mindful of the contributions everyone makes to the household can spark an appreciation for each other. These positive vibes almost always help to diffuse tensions that exist in families over household chores.
Relationship Problem #2: Different Parenting Styles
Are you a homeschooling guru, while your spouse believes in free-spirited play? Do you find yourself wondering how the hell you missed your spouse’s permissive attitude towards screen time, while you more carefully monitor the kids T.V.? Are you arguing about how the kids should behave during dinner and bathtime? If so, you’re not alone.
Co-parenting has never been so exclusive and intensive. In close proximity, your differing parenting styles will not only become apparent, but they will also get magnified. And, your kids can pick up on this. Parenting a teenager is tough on couples, and once they start playing one parent off the other, your relationship problems will get worse. Therapists call this triangulation, and over time, it causes structural and long-lasting cracks in family units.
Overcoming the problem:
Couples need to take time to discuss the deeper emotional themes beneath the parenting squabbles. Find an appropriate and calm time to discuss what your biggest fears are about parenting. Perhaps you are afraid your child will suffer low self-esteem if you don’t challenge them enough? Maybe you worry that their grades will suffer without strong discipline over homework? It is important for you to name these underlying fears that drive your parenting style so you can clearly communicate them to your partner. Once you see that you are both working towards the same ultimate goal, namely, raising happy, healthy kids, it can take the bitterness out of the conflict. Seeing your partner’s worry beneath their frustration can help you view them more compassionately and feel more cooperative.
Individuals often have trouble understanding the “why” behind their behaviour. And in this event, consider a few sessions with a therapist to help you distill your thoughts. When couples are able to calmly and objectively discuss their hopes and fears about the kids, they surprisingly find common ground. This helps them move forward as a unit, and with less conflict.
As a footnote on this specific issue, we remind parents with younger kids to ease up on homework requirements during the lockdown. Life is stressful enough, and your child will eventually catch up. What is more important for them right now is a calm and harmonious household, along with loving and supportive parents.
Relationship Problem #3: Sex & Intimacy
Any time people become housebound, such as during a blizzard or blackout, the jokes begin. Will there be a baby boom in nine months? Parents have gleefully shared a popular meme on social media, suggesting the only babies born nine-months from the lockdown will be first children. After all, being locked up in a house for days on end, with limited outlets, kids in tow, and full-time workloads, is hardly conducive to baby-making!
Nonetheless, a lack of physical intimacy isn’t something to take lightly. Few of us can imagine going for extended periods without hugging our kids or petting our dogs. Yet we forgo affection with our spouses because our stress hormones have been in fight-or-flight mode continuously now, for weeks. Exhausted and burned out, many couples simply cannot turn up the heat in the bedroom. Even if you don’t have kids, sex experts agree that stress kills libido. And for some individuals, subconscious fears about the virus can turn off all desires for physical connection. Without hugging, cuddling and hand-holding, lovers end up cohabiting like roommates.
Research shows that no matter how old we get, physical affection and touch are vital for regulating our nervous system. It releases oxytocin, the calming hormone, into our bloodstream. This is precisely what our bodies need in high doses when we are stressed. It allows us to feel attached and bonded with our partners. A lack of physical contact can create long term relationship problems with connectedness in couples.
Overcoming the problem:
The physical connection does not have to be about sex. If you and your partner have become physically “estranged” for the past few weeks, then reintroducing touch back into your relationship in small bites can help. Start with a 10-second hug at the beginning and end of each day. There is no harm letting your kids witness these moments between you, as long as you keep it at a PG level. You can also hold hands during family outings, or offer stress-relieving foot massages while you watch T.V.
All of this will go a long way to grow the ‘emotional bank account’ of your relationship. This term, coined by Psychologist Dr.John Gottman draws parallels between the debits and credits in a bank account. The net balance of positive and negative interactions can indicate the emotional health of the relationship along with the tolerance levels to weather periods of strife and discontent.
The world has not seen an event like this since World War II. The COVID-19 pandemic will, undoubtedly, create epochal memories and stories in each family. You have an opportunity to make yours about closeness and fighting the storm together. Times of stress can solidify relationships in a positive and long-lasting way. Similarly, loneliness and neglect during such periods can crystallize disconnection and become pivotally ruinous for couples.
If you have grown sexually apart for a long time, then you may need more support to get back on track. Kickstarting the relationship as described above, may feel like a very high mountain to climb. In this event, we recommend seeking the help of a qualified therapist to help you heal and start communicating before you rebuild physical intimacy.
Relationship Problem #4: Alone Time
Alone time is vitally important for self-reflection, gathering our thoughts and connecting with ourselves. It allows us to tend to our emotional needs, without the burden of worrying about anyone else. If you find yourself extending the morning shower for five minutes more, wishing it would never end, you will understand this innate human need. For those of us living with multiple family members, a huge struggle of this lockdown is the lack of privacy to be alone.
Prior to the pandemic, many of us found this “white space” during the subway ride twice a day or the walk home from dropping the kids off. Now, your only solace is in the bathroom. This is especially true if you have young kids that need constant attention (or snacks!). If you live in a smaller apartment, the pressure to get away from it all may be even greater.
Overcoming the problem:
Open up a dialogue, and you will likely discover that your partner feels the same constraints. You could, therefore, resolve this issue quite easily by agreeing to work in shifts. Offer to watch the kids for an hour while your partner goes for a walk, or takes a nap. In return, ask the same of them. It is very important to carve time out for yourself whenever possible. You can use it to listen to your favourite music on headphones, while you wash the dishes, or to relax in the bathtub without worrying about the kids. Parents with toddlers can use their nap time to catch up on their alone time, by reading a book or working out. You can also take turns walking the dog, or going grocery shopping. While these may not be as relaxing as a massage at the spa, they can still help you recharge.
Some individuals find journalling very helpful for working through their thoughts and feelings. It offers a non-judgemental medium for regular self-check-ins. Others prefer to do the same, but via talk therapy. Our practice offers virtual sessions that allow you to safely schedule such sessions with a therapist.
Relationship Problem #5: No Date Nights
The paradox playing out in many couple relationships these days is that you are seeing so much of one another, yet never felt so far apart! The issue here is the lack of quality time. With kids, it becomes virtually impossible to actually talk with each other in any real depth without being interrupted. This can lead to miscommunication and irritation. And when you finally have time to chat, after the kids go down for the night, you might be too comatose to muster more than a grunt in one another’s direction.
Nights on the town are what many couples miss the most. This was your time to relax and be a loving couple, and not exhausted parents. Date nights contribute greatly to the emotional bank account, referenced above. With opportunities for positive interactions dwindled and a litany of tension ever-present during the lockdown, couples are witnessing a depletion in their emotional account balance. And it is driving some to a breaking point.
Overcoming the problem:
If you are both working from home, the lines between work time and home time might have become blurry. And this issue is going to require effort, discipline and planning on your part. It is very important to carve out time for yourselves each week, away from the distraction of your phones.
This does not have to be an elaborate exercise. You can simply have a cup of tea on the front porch while the kids watch a movie inside. However, you could also go all out and dress up for a date night at home, where one cooks and the other plays bartender. If you have young children, then plan a romantic candlelight dinner after they turn in. And if your kids are old enough to be home alone, then going out for a stroll around your neighbourhood may give you just the right dose of connection. What you need, most of all is to talk to each with full attention to get an understanding of how the other is doing.
Disconnection is the main reason why couples seek out counselling. Unfortunately, many will wait far too long to book that appointment and the climb out of the hole takes much longer and require a lot more effort. A few sessions with a trained therapist can help you get back to a more compassionate connection in your relationship. We recommend you contact us as soon as you start feeling disconnected from one another. Our virtual therapy sessions will allow you to receive timely support right away and within your home.
Relationship Problem #6: Losing your Village
While our partners remain our primary source of support, most individuals also get shored up by their connections to friends, family and work colleagues. The lockdown has taken this ecosystem physically away from us. You now have fewer opportunities to blow off steam with colleagues, or your parents, about the kids, for example. Even if you connect with others digitally, this may not provide the same cathartic relief as talking it out, in person, with friends over a meal. Both you and your partner now bear the full brunt of any discord occurring in your household. Do not underestimate how draining this can be on relationships.
Overcoming the problem:
It’s important to maintain regular connections with your “villagers”, even virtually. A video call is better than a phone call. And where you can, try a social distance walk, or porch party. You should make time to engage with colleagues, even if it is to talk shop. And regular check-ins with friends will help give you perspective about your own situation. Most importantly, continue to link with close friends and family who understand you the best. Doing all of this will help prop you up emotionally so your relationship with your partner does not become overly burdened.
In addition, self-care like journalling, a healthy diet and exercise routine, along with alone time, will help with stress relief. If you feel overwhelmed, do not be afraid to reach out for the personalized support of a trained therapist.
Relationship Problem #7: The Finances
Anxiety about money is running very deeply for many families, presently. A record number of job layoffs, along with uncertain job security, has left a large proportion of the population vulnerable financially. Money problems lead to a pandora’s box of relationship problems. This is when couples start arguing about spending styles, division of labour, fairness, and who does more with the kids.
If you have lost your jobs, then it can also trigger deeper mental health problems, like depression, anxiety, and even feelings of failure. Internalizing all of this makes it difficult for your partner to understand your trauma.
Overcoming the problem:
First and foremost, understand that money is a deeply emotional issue. In a healthy and balanced relationship, couples engage in regular discussions about the state of the family finances. This way, both of you can adjust to the changing landscape of an income reduction, when it occurs. Also, our childhood experiences drive us to treat tight budgets in different ways. If you experienced your parents suffering financially at a young age, your reaction to overspending may be much more pronounced than your partner’s.
Arguments about finances are really arguments about safety, security, and feeling valued. Our jobs offer us a pillar of financial stability. Losing a job, or having your job security threatened is traumatic. It can shake an individual’s confidence and feelings of self-worth, at the core. If the pandemic lockdown has resulted in a drop in your household income, it is time to discuss it with compassion and respect for each other. A job loss is hardly anyone’s fault, especially during these times. Your relationship should allow both of you to feel safe in expressing vulnerability in this matter.
You can mutually look into what costs to trim, and research government funds available to you. If necessary, seek professional help for solid advice. Credit counsellors and financial planners can work remotely, and you should also consult with employment lawyers if you are unsure about the legal status of your job. All of this will arm you with vital support to reduce the stress over your finances as you move through the pandemic lockdown. Most of all, remember that working through this problem together will be far easier than working against each other.
Relationship Problem #8: Stress & Mental Health
If you have known for a while that your relationship needed help, then this lockdown has likely made things exponentially worse. Don’t underestimate the impact all of this has on your mental health. Major life stressors can magnify existing cracks in the foundation of relationships, fuelling the fire of disharmony. When both of you have a shorter fuse, and more to worry about, you can leave lasting scars on your bond.
Our brains and nervous systems are designed remarkably well to respond to danger. A snippy comment, therefore, can elicit our defences very quickly. This can lead to escalating arguments, causing tensions to snowball. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a very real, but invisible threat to your mental health. Your nervous system is ready for battle, and your partner may very easily step into your crosshairs. Persistent and long-term exposure to stress and anxiety is detrimental to the health of individuals and invariably leads to relationship problems, culminating in a rupture of the family units.
Overcoming the problem:
More than ever, you need to be kind to yourself and your partner during conversations and conflicts. You can manage stress and anxiety in a variety of ways. Safeguarding your health, both mentally and physically, should be at the top of your mind, right now. With so much out of your control, reaching out for professional help is also a proactive way to protect your mental health. Psychotherapy is a form of treatment for your feelings. It involves talking to a professional who is trained to understand how emotions and thought patterns affect an individual’s overall health. This “talk therapy” brings stress relief, in and of itself.
About The Author
Laura Devlin is a Registered Psychological Associate with over 10 years of experience, and a managing director at Beaches Therapy Group. We have helped numerous clients successfully overcome relationship problems and mental health challenges. Contact us to discover how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.