The cooped up couple
I would like to offer some thoughts on how to replace workplace walls with psychological boundaries without causing upset, and how to look after or reconnect with each other in ways that soothe.
What a difference a few weeks and a virus can make. As a self-confessed technophobe, in the last 2 weeks, I’ve had to acquire the technological skills to work online. This is in order to continue work with existing clients - something I’d never have done otherwise. What a resource!
I’ve not only had to think about changes I’ve had to make to maintain connections with clients whilst we’re all in lockdown, but I’ve also had to think about how to address the differences this technology makes to our sessions (it’s simply different) and had to think carefully about the very specific challenges that this situation brings in its wake for couples suddenly cooped up together.
How does a couple manage the challenge of coexisting under the same roof for most of every day for a sustained length of time?
What’s it like for a couple whose two separate workplaces have been reduced into one familiar, claustrophobic, shared space - be it the kitchen table/ sofa/ bedroom?
How does a couple replicate the workplace structure by creating psychological boundaries or demarcations without causing offence to each other?
Here are some of my ideas:
- Recognise this is a challenge that we all face and that you’re not alone. Remember, this is temporary.
- Start with yourself and recall going to work, the journey and aspects that characterised your workplace. Think about and define what they mean for you. This is an important first step towards recognising what you’re missing/what your specific needs are. Although we tend to be creatures of habit, our creative capacity to adapt and evolve can be remarkable.
- Find out about this together. These are important individual needs that have significance and meaning. Make sure you listen to each other with genuine interest, rather than judgement. What you discover may well be a revelation to you both.
- Appreciate how different your relationships are with work and what’s behind your partners’ preferences. This could help you understand and respect where they’re coming from.
With this in mind, try and accommodate each other’s needs. It’s also an idea to keep “good enough” as your benchmark.
Some thoughts on managing couple conflict and tension:
Acknowledge how you yourself are feeling and recognise that the stress of prolonged uncertainty is going to have an effect on you. The impact of sustained anxiety on energy levels is draining. Once you’ve realised how you are feeling, find a way to tell your partner, making sure that you keep the focus on the “I”. This bit is about you. Then, put yourself aside and find out about what’s going on for your partner. Be genuinely curious, that is without judgement. You may be surprised at what you discover.
Together - talk about taking time out before things get tricky and overwhelming feelings begin to take over.
Acknowledge that one of you may need to retreat behind headphones, the mute button, the bathroom door. But, if it’s you doing the retreat, make sure you’re the one who obviously and soothingly reconnects.
Couples often take turns holding difficult feelings - become an expert in recognising when it’s your turn.
Remember - we humans all struggle with uncertainty and search for its resolution. With so much current uncertainty it is easy to find fault and our partners are the easiest target. But this is to be expected. Acknowledge both the frustration and the worry to yourself and then talk about it together.
Stating the obvious “This is really hard, isn’t it?” can make a big difference.
When you’re feeling calmer, have a conversation about your worries. Try and normalise this for each other rather than complain or push worries away. Often partners take it in turns to carry the anxiety. When you’re feeling a bit lighter, your partner may not. Find out where they are.
Recognising when either you or your partner is approaching limits/feeling overwhelmed etc. will help to avoid exhaustion and to conserve energy. Stress is tiring.
If cabin fever gets a grip, try and step back and see it for what it is. This difficult time will pass.
Don’t forget the positives; the things you love, enjoy and value about each other. These are the reasons why you’re together, the things that attracted you to each other in the beginning. Make a point of bringing these aspects back into the picture. They need emphasising.
Acknowledge gratitude for what your partner means to you, the small gestures, the fun, the kindnesses. These need our close attention. When you say thank you, make it personal. Saying something like “That was really kind, helpful, generous of you” will be more validating and comforting than a brief “Thanks”.
Remember - your cooped up situation is not to punish but to protect you and your community.
Take care of yourselves, take care of each other and take care of the amazing resource that is your relationship.
Final word: If you think your partnership needs an MOT, or more in-depth attention, look for an appropriately qualified clinician with a specific clinical training in couple therapy. Find the words 'couple therapist' in their list of qualifications alongside membership of professional couple bodies eg COSRT, Tavistock Relationships, Relate.
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