Don’t Let your relationships become infected during this pandemic….

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

Turning on the news these days is an invitation to become incredibly anxious. Watching rates of infection soar and the death rate increase; watching a global pandemic at times makes us wonder if we are trapped in a horrible science fiction movie. As we watch, read and listen, our anxiety increases significantly. As anxiety increases and becomes chronic over a period of time, our functioning begins to diminish; meaning anxiety makes us more reactive and, frankly, dumber. This, of course, has a powerful impact on our relationships. So what can we do during this very difficult time to help ourselves and those we love?

Understand that all couple “dances” are intensified by anxiety. All couples co-create dances. For example, if you tend to get caught in a pursue - distance dance where one pursues and the other distances, or an over-under responsible dance where one over functions and complains that the other underfunctions, chronic anxiety will provide rocket fuel to intensify that dance make it worse. If you tend to be reactive - or the opposite and avoid conflict, these patterns will also become exaggerated. As this happens, the pictures we have of each other tend to get more extreme. (“you know what I need but are refusing to give it to me…” ) Watch this carefully during this pandemic and try to slow things down. Give each other a break and try to remember that some of this can simply be reactivity born out of high anxiety. This is an opportunity for grace and forgiveness.

Remember that all relationships are a delicate balance of closeness and distance.  All couples must find a way to continually balance this equation. One person needs more closeness while the other needs more distance. All relationships struggle to balance this dynamic. However, now that most people are working from home and locked in together, what happens to the closeness distance dynamic? It obviously gets intensified, creating more stress and tension in relationships and intensifying conflict and unhealthy “dances”. Once again, give each other a break by understanding what is going on and try to keep communication open and talk about this.

In addition, family functioning will change. The first week may seem like an early spring break with everyone home, but after a few weeks “cabin fever” sets in. How do we educate our kids, balance our relationships, try to stay healthy and sane? The longer this lasts, the more intensely relationships will be impacted.

So practically what can we do?

  1. First, track your own level of anxiety. Pretend there is an anxiety meter that you carry: check it constantly during this crisis to see how high it is. As it gets high, try not to have intense discussions with your spouse and children and watch your level of reactivity carefully.
  2. Second, focus on yourself: not your partner or children. That is, monitor your own anxious reactions and try to slow things down, and not escalate communication. Try to let as much go as possible, and understand that everyone is equally anxious. Focus on your predictable patterns in your relationships and try to shift to something less reactive.
  3. Third, focus on slowing down your breathing and get exercise. Anxiety gets trapped in your body which makes it worse. Slowing down your breathing during this time, and getting some form of regular exercise is essential. Even a 20 minute walk can do wonders.
  4. Fourth, practice spiritual disciplines, whether they be prayer, mindfulness, reading, silence… This is a time to slow ourselves down and listen.
  5. Fifth, settle for “good enough”. None of us will do this perfectly, whether it be homeschooling, or couple communication. The goal is not perfection, but simply to be good enough.
  6. Finally, practice kindness and compassion. We are all in this together. Small acts of kindness and compassion go a long way. I was struck by a cashier at Lowes who took the time to ask how my day was going and hoped that I was staying well. These small acts of kindness go a long way.

For more information, check our book: Renewing your relationship: 5 necessary steps for more information. Also, you can see our facebook live talk from Friday 3.27.20 on our facebook page for more help.