In an effort to flatten the curve and reduce the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia, we’re being told to stay at home and practice social distancing.
While this is challenging for many aspects of our lives, including our work, fitness routines and social interactions, this time in isolation can also be tough on relationships, and in particular, for couples who are living together in each other’s pockets either for the first time or in a much closer capacity to what they’re used to.
“For most couples, being home together is a dramatic shift in routine. It means you and your partner, who probably spent most of the day apart and came together in the evening and on weekends, are now two people who are in constant proximity,” Dan Auerbach, Relationship Counsellor with Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors Sydney tells TheLatch—.
“For those with kids or others in the household, there are also other relationship mixes that are all thrown together for many more hours a day.”
Auerbach acknowledges that this time can be incredibly tricky for couples sharing intimate spaces, and especially when one or both of them are working from home. “People who are in proximity can have an impact on each other’s nervous systems,” he says.
“Say your partner gets frustrated with something they are working on, you are going to feel some of that tension. That brings into play your ability to remain separated from their emotion and to know how and when to respond, or whether to let them self-regulate.
“Such moments also evoke your partner’s needs for connection, support or space when they are frustrated. You can see how being together all day long quickly amplifies the many moments of couple interaction that we have to successfully navigate in a day to avoid conflict, disappointment or disconnection.”
Issues couples face in isolation
We all have certain needs and individuals, we have needs as half of a couple, too. The trick here, Auerbach says, is to try and keep work or external frustrations independent from the relationship.
“I think many couples are going to be pushed into more conflict than they are used to as they grapple with such a vast increase in time together,” says Auerbach.
“Being with our partner evokes our need to connect, which is important, but when we are not able to have the space we are used to, this could start to cause a blurring between personal frustrations and the frustration we feel with our partner.
“For example, the need for tidiness, quiet or conversation are all amplified when we are constantly together, because it can be harder to co-regulate our emotions with our partner than it is to self regulate our own feelings.”
Tips for couples in isolation
It’s early days right now, and it’s likely we can expect the social distancing recommendations to stay in place for at least a couple of months. So it may be wise to address a few key needs now before tensions build.
“Being clear about what your needs are and presenting them in a non-blaming way is critical,” Auerbach says. “Try and observe what challenges you about being together over extended periods of time. Presenting these challenges as needs which your partner can help you with, can evoke their care for you and elicit their cooperation.”
As an example, Auerbach explains that someone may feel more anxious generally because of the state of the world, and realise that this amplifies their need to have everything in control, perhaps by keeping their home extra tidy.
“Sharing these underlying fears and needs with your partner can make them more compassionate about your needs to have your space a certain way,” he says.
Keeping the spark alive
Schedule date nights, set aside time for quality interactions, but most importantly, give each other space and retain some level of privacy.
“Find ways to separate during the day. If space isn’t available, make some agreements about creating virtual space with headphones or agreeing to limit conversation for certain hours.
“Normally we encourage couples to seek out more opportunities for connection, but these are challenging and different times where we need to find ways of disconnecting which don’t wound or disappoint our partner. By negotiating a solution to space together neither party is going to feel emotionally dropped.”
Talk it through
Prioritising your relationship health is important, and should you feel like support could be helpful to get you through, Auerbach encourages you seek counselling remotely.
“Think of this as a challenge your relationship is facing together and that you are working together as a team to try and work out what each of you may need. Couples counselling is still a great idea remotely and works really well by Zoom, Skype and Facetime.
You can contact leading networks of couple counsellors like Associated Relationship & Marriage Counsellors for a range of therapists who have great experience working this way.