What phase is your Relationship Recovery in?

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

For the last three and a half months, we have been anxiously living in a state of shut down. We have sheltered at home, worked from home, homeschooled our kids, canceled vacations, and had very little to do in the outside world. Meanwhile, we watch the news, watch infection rates increase, and watch the pandemic become politicized, not to mention the multiple other societal dynamics we are tracking. These have been complicated and anxiety filled times to say the least.

Now, our part of the world is slowly reopening. We have watched our state move deliberately through four initial phases, and we are beginning to relax a little while still wondering what’s to come as infection rates spike in other parts of the country. Having some small sense of ease makes this a good time to reflect on what the infection has done to our families and relationships.

We have had the opportunity to listen to numerous couples and families during the last three months. From these discussions, two things have come to be quite clear:

First, our anxiety has increased significantly. We have moved to a more or less constant state of chronic anxiety. Watching the world close down, and worrying about our families, finances, and health has, not surprisingly, impaired our level of functioning across the board. Chronic anxiety inevitably impairs creativity and relationship functioning. The more anxious we become, the more impaired our relationships become.

Second, the dynamics of closeness and distance in relationships have become far more complicated. The usual rhythms of life have changed. We spend far more time together as couples and families with few, if any, breaks and no real interactions with other people. Being sheltered at home with no breaks has erased the balance of closeness and distance and raised a series of significant issues for couples and families resulting in more conflict, decreased emotional closeness, and increased struggles in parenting. The combination of chronic anxiety combined with this shift in the balance of closeness and distance has complicated our lives in ways that leave many couples and families struggling and feeling hopeless.

Understanding these dynamics of increased anxiety and the closeness distance imbalance, what should we be reflecting on as we consider our own “relationship renewal”? This summer may be a good time to reflect on these observations and begin to make changes before the fall hits. Let’s explore and consider several questions and patterns:

Couples: How has anxiety shifted your patterns during this pandemic? Look for a moment at your own relationship interactional patterns and how they may be affected by the above relational dynamics:

  1. Pursue/distance: When anxiety goes up, pursuers tend to “chase” their partners in an attempt to seek soothing and bring the anxiety back down, leaving their partners feeling pressured and overwhelmed. Distancers, on the other hand, do the opposite, seeking space to decompress and reduce anxiety, and leaving their partners feeling alone or abandoned. You can see how this dance, with the addition of significant anxiety, intensifies in very painful ways for both partners, especially if they blame the other for the pain in an attempt to make sense of what’s happening.
  2. Over/under-functioning: Over-functioners take on way too much and may intensify this role with the increased anxiety, lending to more relational disconnection and a higher likelihood of burnout. This causes the over-functioners to feel more alone and struggle with anxiety and/or depression. Meanwhile, under-functioners may feel more lost or uncertain and closed out of the relationship, especially as their partners hit high gear and take over, lending to an increase in depression.
  3. Rapid escalators: The rapid escalator couple typically sees difficulty with slowing down conflict and focusing on the issues at hand, which can make for some explosive and disorienting fights. The increased anxiety from the pandemic adds fuel to these fires, meaning that conflict may begin to feel never ending, which wears on a couple’s ability to feel connected and held and increases the likelihood of blaming and relational dissolution.
  4. Conflict avoidant: If you’re used to a relationship in which you “never fight or disagree”, you’re probably conflict avoidant. With the increased anxiety of the pandemic, these couples may stop talking about important dynamics altogether. While it may sound appealing to not fight, the reality for this couple is an increase in loneliness and resentment over time, which can increase levels of depression significantly.

Parenting: How has this pandemic impacted your parenting and how you see your kids? Many parents who struggled with their kids during homeschooling noticed an increase in conflict, which eventually led them to wonder if something was wrong with their child. The increased anxiety can easily skew how we see our children, making it difficult to remember the importance of parenting according to temperament.

Our relationship renewal project at Samaritan wants to help as you adapt and rebuild your relationship and families. To that end, our relationship experts are here to help with live and telehealth therapy sessions. Our books and blogs are available on our website: samaritancounselingcenter.org.

We also want to provide two practical, and free, offers to help make sense of these dynamics further (dates to come shortly).

  1. A zoom parenting workshop on parenting according to temperament, led by Erin Belanger.
  2. A zoom couples forum on shifting relationship patterns in the interest of increased intimacy, led by David Olsen.