Many people have felt challenged in their relationships during this pandemic. There is no doubt that being together all the time is unusual for some of us and demands for new ways of being and new ways of living. How do we cope when the stress levels are going up? What do we do when there is conflict and the tension intensifies? Some people know how to successfully manage relationships tension, but others are struggling a lot.
Let me share who I’ve seen in my work to do well during these difficult times. It is the families that talk to each other, those that communicate and keep the dialogue open whatever happens. Also those that are honest and transparent in their communication do even better than the ones that hide their feelings. Why are these people keeping their relationships in peace? Because they don’t just pile up on tension and unresolved issues. They deal with their problems as they happen.
For many couples and families the past year of confinement was one of their most challenging times. One of my clients, 29 year old female, describes it exactly like this: “We’ve never been so distant like now. It’s strange because we are physically closer all the time, much more than before, but we do not touch each other anymore. I see him on his laptop all the time. He says he’s working, but…I don’t know what he’s doing all day long in that room. He does not come out for hours and if I dare to open the door he gets so upset and then he does not speak with me for days… he treats me like I don’t even exist in the house”.
Some people manage relationship tension by shutting down
Some people respond to the changes inside of them with anger and fury and they become abusive in their relationships. In this case, her partner, a 33 year old man did not talk about what was going on inside of him and left her make interpretations about his behaviour.
Now, the problem is not that one of the partners is having a bad time. The problem starts when the second partner can’t’ manage whatever happens with the first one and falls down into their mess. In this case she stayed quiet and did not share with him how she felt. She asked no questions and spent all her time ruminating and making assumptions about what might be happening with her partner.
When they feel overwhelmed by their emotions, regardless if they become aware of them or not, some people simply shut down to life. For weeks and weeks she did not eat, she did not take care of herself and she spent most of her time imagining him having an online affair. In therapy we quickly found the cause of that behaviour. Her father was a cheater and she grew up distrusting men.
The simple realization of that link between her past and present helped her heal and save her relationship. That poor communication could have costed them their relationship, so this time there was a happy ending with a big fat lesson learned.
Culture defines to a large extent how we manage relationship tension
The second couple (38 and 41 years old) went through a similar situation, but dealt with it differently. She says that they have been through a lot individually and together in their 9 years of marriage and that they go stronger and stronger each day.
“There is love, respect and appreciation between us and when the tension kicks in we don’t run away, we face it. Recently I felt so annoyed that he works from home …It was easier for me and the kids when he was not at home all day long. It’s so frustrating to hear him talking on the phone all day in the spare bedroom. I wish he could spend more time with us. Last week I spoke to him, I shared my thoughts and feelings and he said to me ‘fine, I’ll come out half an hour every 2-3 hours to play with the girls and help you with lunch, no problem whatsoever’. It felt so good afterwards, it was like he was home with us all day long which was fantastic”.
Now, what is the significance of this? It is very important to understand why people react the way they do.
The first couple is of Indian heritage. She is a female brought up in a culture where she obeys her man. She suffered when suspected she was cheated, but did not speak about it. He was also affected by his programming. He was made to believe that, as a male, he was in charge of the family and he was the breadwinner and the decision maker in the house.
In this case we found that he was not cheating on her with a virtual partner. He was just worried he might lose his job and was haunted by negative, catastrophic ideas about their future and as a result he thought he had to work harder.
The second couple used the dialogue as a way of sorting out their problems. They spoke about their thoughts and emotions and they respected each other’s needs, making adjustments to their lifestyle to help the other feel better. This is a healthy way of handling life. But, let’s look deeper and understand why they responded to life this way.
She grew up in an Italian family where everyone expressed their emotions and spoke openly about their thoughts and feelings. He was brought up in an English family, with artists parents that managed busy schedules and lived an unconventional life. He too was allowed to express himself since he was little and he learned early in life that plans can be changed on the last minute to enjoy spontaneous parties and welcome different visitors in the house.
Do not go to bed before you resolve your relationship tension
The learning? We tend to react in the same way we’ve seen others reacting around us when our brains started to develop. If for a reason or another what we’ve learned is not healthy, positive and helpful in our lives anymore then that’s a sign that we need to change and we need to learn new ways of being and living.
What is helpful is that we can all change our personalities if we wish to. The difficult part is to understand how we developed that way and to accept that there are other ways of being and living that would be more appropriate for us, but this needs to break through our self-righteousness first.
In the case of the first couple they need to intentionally adjust their mindset to the western world, and this requires both time and willingness to change. But what comes to their advantage is exactly what helped them become how they are today: it’s their discipline, respect for authority and a strong desire to survive and get better in life. I’ve seen some fantastic transformations and I have a hunch that this couple will make it too.
Moving the focus onto you now. To preserve your wellbeing, respect this simple rule in life: do not go to bed before you check in with your partner or family what’s been happening throughout they day. Talk about the events and people and share how they made you feel, what was the significance of those events in our life and what needs to change to make you feel better.
Celebrate the positive experiences and make plans to resolve the more challenging ones. Talking with people you trust about your experiences is a simple yet very powerful avenue for support. The benefits are fantastic: rather than going into the sleep confused, overwhelmed and in pain, you will release the tension, get some clarity and wisdom and move onto the next day feeling lighter and at peace. Your next day will be a good day because it had started well already, right?
Feel free to share this with someone dear if you feel they might need it right now. And live from a place of peace – not tension.