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Relationships under stress: Couples, coronavirus and isolation

I’m writing this on week three of lockdown. Nothing is normal at the moment. Even if we're managing to fulfil work and family responsibilities in a way we feel is good enough, it's likely that our relationships will be impacted by what is unfolding.

Many of us are adjusting to spending unusual amounts of time under one roof and sharing one space. The ordinary irritations of everyday life will be harder to cope with and for couples with existing problems, this time may feel unbearable. 

In the face of so much uncertainty, it is important for us to find ways of restoring some equilibrium to our lives and managing our relationships.

Relationships are co-created. One way to think about them is as a third entity comprising of what each individual brings into the mix. This approach invites a willingness to reflect on our own part in the relationship and is a way of dissolving the blame that can often manifest between couples and commonly lead to defensive anger and withdrawal.  

Silent stalemates are usually a painful and unhappy time when some couples can feel frustrated with themselves and their partner. It’s common to be caught in cycles and patterns within a relationship feeling ever more hopeless and ruminating on remembered hurts.

If both parties are willing to reflect on their own part in this co-creation, solutions and healing are often attainable along with the movement into deeper self-awareness and a stronger connection.

I thought it would be helpful at this time to focus, in brief, on some aspects of self and relationships that may be impacted by this time of social isolation.

The enclosed environment of lockdown may offer little personal space and privacy. We probably don't give much conscious thought to how we move within this space in a way that manages our personal boundaries and those ordinary compromises and irritations that all relationships must navigate. Offering and asking for space at this time is probably essential. This might mean undisturbed time even if you’re sharing the physical space.

There is undeniable uncertainty regarding the duration of these conditions and when it will come to an end. While managing this time there is an increase in the potential for fear and anxiety to permeate;  job security, financial difficulties, health worries, the absence of family contact, fear for elders, education and so on. We can easily move into wanting to control our immediate environment and relationships as we seek some sense of mastery over the things we can’t control.

Fear can have a particular response that is experienced in our bodies. Quite simply we are designed to survive. When we feel under threat, as we are at this time, our body will react with unconscious processes that relate to the fight/flight response. Through a variety of media, we're being exposed to a lot of information (not all of it accurate) and visual images that will tell our survival systems to come on board.

Finding structure to the day and feeling engaged in something pleasurable helps us to avoid ruminating on the things we can’t change or control. In addition, the process of thinking and focusing on something positive actually helps our physiological fear response to settle and our emotions to become regulated. With enough repetition, we can usually rewire our own circuit that relates to how we process fear and allow the possibility of rebalancing internally and within our relationships.

You might experience yourself or your partner being particularly angry or withdrawn or sometimes numb and feeling flat. It can be difficult to understand the behaviour that seems out of character or an inappropriate response to a situation, but this may be a normal response to feeling frightened. Understanding how much of your behaviour and that of your partner is about survival can be really helpful in this immediate crisis and help your relationship thrive in the future.

To illustrate this, let's imagine as a child you learned to feel ok in your family of origin by shutting down your own emotions to be strong for others, you're likely to be doing that even more right now. Imagine you live with someone who learned that they needed to express emotions loudly in order to be seen and heard, they are also likely to be doing that even more right now. It doesn't take much imagination to see that a couple might find ways to overcome this disparity under ordinary circumstances and yet feel greatly at odds in this abnormal and uncertain time.

Additional stress exerted on relationships is often the catalyst for separation - or it can be a move into a deeper more connected relationship; offering a sense of having survived something together which is more than the actual virus or the hardships that accompany this time.  

Relationship work is as varied as the individuals who make up any couple so it's understandable that many will struggle to find clarity and a way forward in the coming months. I would encourage couples not to feel alone, especially in the physical absence of supportive family. Online relationship therapy can be just as effective as face to face work, providing that the internet and our computers are working. In addition, it can feel easier for some people who might find the prospect of face to face work too confronting. 

We are all finding our new way forward and looking towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps there is something levelling about this shared experience, a commonality that will remind everyone of what it feels like to struggle and feel lost as well as to connect with resourcefulness, deepen our human connections and find the courage to live more truthfully with ourselves.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Judith Carson Psychotherapist, Supervisor, Relationship therapist, UKCP, MBACP

I am a transactional analyst with psychotherapy speciality and a deep interest in what makes us human. I am constantly in awe of how we navigate what life brings to us and how we not only survive great challenges but emerge richer for the experience. Respecting each client's unique character and situation is central to my therapeutic approach.… Read more

Written by Judith Carson Psychotherapist, Supervisor, Relationship therapist, UKCP, MBACP

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