As time drags on in this pandemic limbo, relationship tensions are rising and pouring out and all over one another and not always in the healthiest of ways. Heightened emotionality, lashing out at one another at the slightest rub, or alternatively checking out and going numb are a few of the coping behaviors we fall back.
Experiencing the differences between how you and your partner cope in such times of upheaval can be disappointing, scary, head-spinning and hurtful. Bad habits of coping with the stress and misguided attempts of trying to get your needs met end up creating more distance between you and your partner rather than moving you closer to the sense of safety and comfort you are and your partner are truly yearning for.
So, if you find yourself questioning the viability of your intimate relationship, do not worry, you are not alone. Here is a bit of what I work on with the couples I see who are struggling during this very odd and stressful time we are enduring…
First and foremost, remember this is an unusually bizarre and stressful time. Most everything we relied upon as normal and routine vanished. We are coping with a great deal of loss and perpetual and heightened states of uncertainty and confusion over what has been unfolding and without a real idea for how long this will continue.
With little certainty to grab hold of, the core of our bodies which cue us for safety and danger alike, our nervous systems, have been thrown a super fast curve-ball and whether we are consciously registering these changes, our nervous systems are absorbing them and contending with these changes in a wide range of ways and strategies.
Therefore, from the goodness of your heart, please don’t discount or judge everyone’s stress response and try to cut each other some slack and manage your expectations of one another. While we may act and behave in undesirable and habitual ways, our nervous systems can learn new ways of coping if given ample space for understanding, support, and practice.
Also, making long term decisions during times of immediate stress is not always the best path to go down. Give yourself adequate time to reflect, listen, learn and consider how certain choices and decisions may have irreversible consequences and whether or not you are all prepared for those consequences. In other words, sit with and explore how workable the conflicts are that you are experiencing before you choose to end things. What changes can you both make within yourselves.
“Working on a relationship” does not mean continuing to do what you have been doing for a short period of time to no avail. Working on a relationship means making an intentional and purposeful choice to pause, feel, explore, reflect and then actually do something different.
Try this. Since Covid19 has turned our world and our nervous systems upside down, inside out and sideways, pervading all aspects of life, let’s use COVID as an easy to remember acronym for how to approach and work with our relationship struggles more effectively and compassionately.
C – Calmly CUT it Out. Relationships have a way of forming patterns of dynamics that can either serve us or work against us and cause more pain and hurt. The more I push, the more you pull for example. “Cut it Out” is such a widely used phrase that simply means “Stop”. When either one of you begins to find yourself turning down the dead-end road of hurtful patterns, just stop. Calmly say, “We need to stop, take a time out and pause to acknowledge if we continue like this, it won’t end well.”
O – Own and observe. Take a breath and simply observe what you are feeling inside, what you have been saying, the tone of your voice, the expression on your face, what your body is actually doing and just note and own your part of the dynamic. Is what you’re showing by way of your body, face, voice matching the truth of what you are feeling? What is the core of what you are feeling?
V – Validate. To validate simply means to acknowledge and see as it is. It does not mean to judge, debate, explain away, disagree with or dismiss yourself or the other. Here we practice validating the truth of my feeling and the truth of what the other is feeling. We are simply stating what we feel or see the other is feeling without adding anything extra. For instance, “I feel frustrated and hurt. It’s hard for me to feel my hurt” or, “I see you are feeling frustrated and hurt”, “I see you in your hurt”.
I – Investigate and Inquire with compassion. This is about creating a road for deeper understanding and attempting to break the pattern of assumptions. This can be practiced with other and towards ourselves as well. Now I understand it can be tricky. Usually when we are feeling hurt or frustrated it is hard to express compassion towards the other who we may view as the source of our hurt and frustration. Try by asking open-ended simple questions, “You seem hurt, can you tell me more about what your hurt feels like?” “Do you know what your anger needs or wants right now?”
D- Dare to Do something Different than you usually do. Here is where we solidify a change in attention and attunement. Perhaps you would throw your hands up and roll your eyes when your partner shares they are feeling frustrated or hurt. What if you sit and take a few deep breaths and massage your palms instead of rolling your eyes and try opening up and listening to them without judgment? Or maybe you just hand out your hand to them gently and not say a word? Perhaps when you would feel hurt you would numb out by mindless TV or eating Oreos. What if instead you started to journal about your hurt? Even just a few lines. Here we make the conscious choice to do something different than our usual behavior.
Never underestimate the power of self-reflection, it’s essential for the strength and health of any relationship. Try thinking also about who and what type of person you wish to be for the other during this time and what you need to find within yourself in order to show up differently for the other.
None of this is meant to be a salve or instant relief for high tensions and repeated opening of wounds. It is indeed a practice. This is meant as an outline and guide, the practice can always be deepened by the support of an experienced and trained relationship therapist.