To say that this has been a difficult time would be an insult to the so many people who have suffered. Many have lost relatives or their jobs, and there is instability across the globe. Parents are overwhelmed, being forced to juggle their jobs while being their children’s teachers, technicians, and wardens. However, I’d like to delve into the way Covid has affected relationships and offer some guidance.
How This is Affecting Couples
One way that I’ve seen the pandemic affecting couples is how much time they spend together but how little time they have to enjoy each other’s company. While they are often with each other all day, it is within a highly stressful and tense environment, so their relationship is strained all day every day. If they have children, then the challenges become magnified as they have to navigate their own stresses, their dissatisfaction with their partners, and the needs of their children. Parents find themselves yelling at their kids more and then blame themselves for being bad parents. “I should be able to stop myself from screaming at them,” parents lament. “I’m better than this,” they will sigh.
What I’ve seen happening with couples under this level of stress is that they are drowning so much in their own troubles that they have difficulty accessing compassion for their partners. Barely able to keep their heads above water, they can’t see past their most immediate challenge, and anyone who asks anything from them is just adding to the problem.
What ensues are individuals who feel like they are unable to handle their own experience and then are met with more pressure from their loved ones. They perceive their partners as getting in their way at best, and intentionally attacking them or trying to ruin their lives at worst. How does this happen?
When we are too preoccupied with our own suffering, we cannot access compassion for others. Think about when you are so tired that you can barely keep your eyes open. When someone wants to talk to you about their day, how much can you care? I remember a time like this in my own life when my son was born. I was so exhausted and was having a hard time despite all the good in my life. It was hard to be happy about having a baby because I was so tired. When I was trying to feed my son a bottle, I was sure that when the top of the bottle fell off, it was intentionally trying to sabotage me.
During times where we are completely overwhelmed, we tend to perceive everything as an attack, no matter who (or my case what) is involved. We can end up blaming our loved ones for problems that they may not have intended to create or may not really even exist. So how do we manage this?
Managing Covid Relationships
I think that there are a few things we need to do in order to manage this level of stress. The first is to be a little more forgiving of ourselves. We need to get rid of as many “should” statements as possible. There is no “should” for how to ideally respond to a pandemic. It’s not a helpful way of thinking and it just adds guilt to the burdens we can barely lift. Good enough needs to be good enough because we can’t give more than what we have, and right now, most people are just tapped out.
The second thing we need to do is be more forgiving of others. This can be incredibly challenging especially when we have a hard time doing so for ourselves (for some people the opposite is true). When we feel like someone we love is making our lives even more difficult, we need to be forgiving of them. But how can I possibly do that if I feel like they are ruining my life?
I think the answer to that lies in curiosity. When someone we love is doing something that we perceive as an attack, we need to do our best to be as curious as possible – and this is not an easy task. We can ask ourselves, or them, why they would do something that has negative effects on us. We may find that they had no idea or that they were actually trying to make our lives easier but their methods weren’t what we needed.
If we perceive that they are really trying to hurt us, we need to ask ourselves why someone who loves me would want to hurt me. Was there something that I did that contributed to this situation? Did I hurt them somehow? When someone who is generally our supporter seems to have turned on us, far more often than not, we are misreading the situation. Most often they are trying to help us or are completely unaware that they did something that made our lives harder. Also, if we are totally overwhelmed, there is a very good chance that our perception is off as well, and we need to stay mindful of that.
Changing our scripts
One final recommendation for how to access our compassion with our partners is to change the script. When couples fight, they have a tendency to already know how the fight is going to go because they’ve had this fight hundreds of times. They know what the other is going to say before they say it. When we’re in those fights, we don’t hear what our partner is saying, we’re thinking of our comeback. Before they can finish their sentences, we’ve got the next chess move worked out to prove that they are wrong.
One way that we can catch ourselves while doing that is to try different speaker-listener techniques or to pause before responding and clarify if we understood what our partner was actually saying. We might find that we’re saying the same thing, but passionately disagreeing with each other because we didn’t really listen when our partner spoke. When we change the way that we respond, or even our timing when we respond, it helps us break from our regular script where we are deadlocked in arguments. If we want a chance at really communicating with our partners, we need to slow down and really listen. We may find that we are agreeing, or that we may not have considered all of the facts. Whatever the case may be, if we stick to our rehearsed lines, we’ll never listen, and we’ll never resolve our issues. If we can find a way to be present, listen, and clarify what our partners are saying, we have a shot at really working together.
For more about how to listen without getting defensive, try reading this article from The Gottman Institute.
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