How to manage relationship tension in quarantine

Many people feel 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 manage it easier, but others are struggling.

Who does well during these times? Families that talk to each other. Those that communicate and keep the dialogue open do well. And those that are honest and transparent in their communication do even better. Why? 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 this confinement is one of their most challenging times. One of my clients, 29, describes it exactly like this: “We’ve never been so distant like now. It’s strange because we are physically closer all the time, but we do not touch 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 to me for days… he treats me like I don’t even exist in the house”.  Some people respond to the changes inside them with anger and fury and they become abusive in their relationships. In this case, her partner, 33, did not talk about what was going on inside 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 happen 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.

The second couple went through a similar situation, but dealt with it differently. She says that (at 38 and 41 years old) they have been through a lot individually and together in their 9 year old marriage and 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 to be honest”.

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 and 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 to keep harmony and peace in the home.

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, we need to learn new ways of being and living.

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. The first couple has a little way to go to adjust their mindset to the western world, but they will make it. What comes in their advantage is exactly what helped them become how they are today: their discipline, respect for authority and a strong desire to survive and get better in life

To preserve your  wellbeing, respect this simple rule in life: do not go to bed before you check in with your partner/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 helpful type of support you can get from your dear ones every day. 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.

Share this with someone dear if you feel they might need it.

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