Protecting your relationship from coronavirus

Relationship therapists emphasise communication. Counselling sessions often begin with a couple being asked how their week together went and how they’d got on with commitments made in the previous session. A frequent response is, ‘we just haven’t had time to talk'. However, due to recent events, one big thing that’s changed for many of us is having more time: especially more time with our partner. But will proximity provide an opportunity to improve relationships or will it create a widening of fault-lines? In this article, I offer a few suggestions about what you might do to manage ‘enforced togetherness’.



Kicking-off a conversation

In July 2019, I wrote an article entitled, ‘Relationship anxiety – do you have doubts?’. I listed seven signs indicating that your relationship might be in trouble. The misgivings listed were around communication, not feeling understood, sharing chores unequally, unsatisfactory sex, feeling let down, general unease and hesitancy about expressing your feelings. You might consider using the list to kick-off a general discussion. Are you both on the same page or do you see your relationship and any strains differently?

Simply having the conversation may be therapeutic. We all have irritating habits. In many relationships, they make a rare appearance or are glossed over. However, when we are in greater contact, they may become more apparent - especially if a relationship is already rocky. Even when our relationship is harmonious such habits can lead to friction when we’re anxious, as many of us are right now.

Managing the conversation

While having a conversation to identify any issues may well be helpful, it mustn’t become all-consuming. It’s important not to start worrying obsessively about your relationship. Taking the lid off is intended to let steam out of the system. That won’t happen if you keep your ‘feelings pot’ simmering. My suggestion is to identify an agreed time to hold a discussion – a time of the day when you both might feel energised and when you won’t be interrupted.

Having relationship checkpoints on a regular basis is a good idea – weekly is probably enough. The length of the session should be fixed – one hour should do it. The exchange should note positive things as well as areas to work on. As in a counselling session, it’s a good idea to record action points and to review them at the next checkpoint.

Structure is an important element in managing domestic life at present, as illustrated by a case study involving Tom and Linda, (I’ve drawn on two case vignettes in this article. Both are fictionalised composites using changed names). Tom and Linda have agreed to look at their work schedules at breakfast time and plan their day. They already have agreed a weekly plan on how they will share childcare responsibilities and household chores which is an area of friction for them. In addition to a weekly checkpoint, Tom and Linda are holding a ten-minute debrief at bedtime to reflect on the day. That may be too much for many couples. I offer it simply to add to the ‘menu’ of communication options.

Recognising what’s happening

The second example involves Colin and Alice. Alice is an intelligent, professional woman. In her working life she is capable. She runs a successful business. However, in her private life, she would admit to being very forgetful, frequently mislaying her house keys, phone, etc. Her husband Colin is a partner in an accountancy practice. In Colin’s case his need for order - things in their place and ‘adding up’ - suited him to his chosen profession. However, his relationship with disorder occasionally caused problems in his marriage to ‘forgetful’ Alice. So, when Alice lost the hand gel sanitiser that Colin had gone to great lengths to get it led to a major row.

In their next counselling session, Colin and Alice were able to unpack what had happened. Colin traced his relationship with order to a chaotic childhood and a need for certainty. He explored why he’d chosen Alice as a partner, possibly to witness her coping and managing disorder. Alice explored her relationship with criticism, relating it to her controlling mother. She recognised a fear about her poor memory.

A ‘deep dive’ into underlying factors is only possible in counselling. But following any row, we can ask the question, ‘what happened there?’. We can’t expect our partner to change. That choice is theirs. But we can ask ourselves what we could do differently. We can try to identify what sensitivities were triggered, how we might have responded differently and, most importantly, how we might behave in the future. If we feel things aren’t positive it’s important to take responsibility and ask our self the question, what can I do individually to make them better.

Communicating our feelings

There will be times when we are angry about something our partner has said or done. Anger is a legitimate emotion. But we need to express it the right way. When Colin was asked how he’d responded to something that had irritated him, he said he’d walked out and slammed the door. When Alice was asked the same question, she said she gave Colin ‘the silent treatment’. The same treatment she’d learned from her mother. Colin and Alice both acknowledged that their behaviour towards their respective partners didn’t represent ‘doing something about it’ in a helpful way. A constructive response involves getting your point over in an assertive way, as opposed to aggressive or passive-aggressive way.

Providing guidance on assertive communication would require a whole new article. For now, I’d underline three key guidelines. Practise using fact-based statements modelled on ‘when you did/said xxx, I felt yyy’. For example, ‘When you messed up the kitchen immediately after I’d tidied up, I felt disrespected’. Second, practise using assertiveness statements that communicate your feelings while remaining respectful. For example, ‘I think your intentions are good but that doesn’t help me’. Third, practise, ‘If…then…’ statements. For example, ‘If you’re going to keep saying unkind things then I’m going to end this conversation'.

Finding the positives

As noted, it’s important not to get caught up in a negative agenda, especially when the outside world appears threatening. We need to celebrate the positives about our relationship; the fact that we have someone to share difficult times with. We have someone to reach out and touch. We are not alone. Now is a good time to list our gratitudes overall, including things about our relationship.

We might also take the opportunity to do the things we enjoy doing as a couple, to rediscover past pleasures or to discover new ones. We can re-watch the box set or film that we enjoyed so much a few years ago. Perhaps it will remind us of good times and help recreate them. Perhaps we can learn new things together – maybe a foreign language, a dance or some other skill via online learning.

Looking after you

If you’re not in a good place, it won’t help your relationship. In addition to couple counselling, Alice is having individual therapy. She said that her therapist has advised her that she can’t be entirely dependent on Colin for her happiness. She has a responsibility herself to find enjoyment. We all do. At present, when opportunities for social interaction are severely limited, we can’t spend 24/7 with our partner. That would undermine even the strongest relationships. We need to allocate time for ourselves and find fulfilling activities to occupy it.

Again, structure is important. My suggestion is that you ring-fence a specific time or times of the day for ‘me-based’ activities. These might be a combination of learning and things you might do purely for pleasure. Right now, it’s important to find enjoyment. It’s legitimate.

How often have we complained, ‘if only I had the time?’. There’s time now to read all those books we’ve never got around to, time to learn the piano, time to paint a picture as well as time to tidy the house. Soon it will be time to tidy up the garden if you have one. There’s plenty to do.

An important activity is exercise. Physical activity helps mental well-being. You don’t need to let your fitness regime drop-off if your gym is closed. Government guidelines currently state that you can exercise outside once a day. Be mindful to do it far away from other people and make sure you keep up with the latest Government announcements in case they change. But this means you can go for a run or a brisk walk which are great ways to stay active. Alternatively, there are exercise classes now being held online so you can join in at home.

Humans are social animals. Isolation is destructive - especially for individuals with a tendency towards low mood. So, it’s important to stay in touch. Fortunately, internet communication makes that relatively easy. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other communication channels help us preserve connectivity. Video calls shouldn’t be restricted to work. Phone calls are also an important way of keeping in touch – perhaps now’s the time to enact those good intentions of ‘phoning home’ or time to phone that friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with for ages.

I’ve aimed this article at couples whose relationship is either in a good place or are trying to sustain it. However, I’m aware that for some couples enforced togetherness is their worst nightmare. The relationship is already at breaking point and current restrictions may feel like a prison sentence. For such couples, the days ahead may be the final straw. If you find yourself in that situation, I refer you back to my July 2019 article and suggest you find a counsellor who you feel you’ll get on with. You might also find my November 2018 article on ‘Coping with divorce or separation’ helpful.

A twelve-point action plan

In terms of my main audience for this article – couples who want their relationship to work – my suggestions are summarised in the following twelve-point action plan:

1. Jointly review your relationship using the checklist and summarised in paragraph two above and set out in my July 2019 article.

2. Agree specific regular times to review your relationship and interaction, aiming to identify learning-points and actions, but don’t obsess about it.

3. Reflect on your sensitivities and reactions – aim to respond in an enlightened and constructive way.

4. Express your feelings in an assertive rather than an aggressive way.

5. Take individual responsibility – identify what you might do or how you might behave differently.

6. Try to structure your time at home so that you’re not constantly negotiating who does what when, ensuring that chores are shared equally.

7. Celebrate what’s good about your relationship, what’s working well and what you value.

8. Find enjoyable things to do together.

9. Take responsibility for your own happiness, avoid putting the full load on your partner.

10. Plan time for yourself and how you’re going to use it in a fulfilling way – seize the opportunity.

11. Keep up or start an exercise programme.

12. Maintain social contact using online channels and phone calls.

A ‘final’ word

Having re-read the foregoing, I’m aware there’s much more I could say about managing enforced togetherness – the trials of family life, feeling overwhelmed by negative news, different views on risk, worries about elderly relatives, financial worries and no holiday breaks to look forward to. Hence my putting ‘final’ in inverted commas. So, look out for part 2 of this article in due course.

Given what is happening in the world, my last piece of advice is to cherish what you have and to hope that we all stay safe and remain healthy.

Hopefully, these pointers will give you some framework to navigate through this difficult time. If you’re feeling in need of some support and are considering counselling, remember lots of our therapists offer remote support. Use our online and telephone search to find someone you resonate with. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Brian Appleby, MA (Relationship Therapy), MA (Econ), MLitt (Econ), MBACP
London W1G & W4

Brian has a private practice in Harley Street, providing individual and couple counselling. He trained with Relate and has an MA with Distinction in Relationship Therapy. Before becoming a therapist he worked in change management in international corporations. He believes the client-therapist relationship is fundamental to successful outcomes.

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