Pandemic straining some relationships, psychologists say

Some psychologists say they’ve seen an uptick in couples seeking counselling since the COVID-19 pandemic began, as relationships face strain from life under lockdown.

Other couples making the most of this unusual time together

Clinical psychologist Sue Johnson, left, and Tracie Lee, right, a registered psychotherapist, both say they've seen an uptick in couples seeking therapy since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Submitted)

Some psychologists say they've seen an uptick in couples seeking counselling since the COVID-19 pandemic began, as relationships face strain from life under lockdown.

Whether they're being forced to spend more time together than ever before, or they're struggling with financial or health concerns, many couples are feeling increasing levels of friction.

"People are coming for more and more help, and I think it's going to get worse," said Sue Johnson, a clinical psychologist, researcher and founder of the Ottawa Couple and Family Institute.

  • Got a question about how to help your relationship? Dr. Sue Johnson will be CBC Ottawa's Q&A guest Wednesday, May 13, giving advice live from 8-8:30 am. Email us with your question.

"The relationship and mental health fallout from this thing isn't obvious right now because we're all worried about the physical — but it's going to be completely huge."

Entering 'the red zone'

There's fear about contracting coronavirus, Johnson said, but also a general sense of worry caused by the uncertainty of the pandemic and how long it will last.

Johnson said during such times of uncertainty, people turn to their partners for emotional support — and their partner's response can determine the future of the relationship.

"When [people] feel more vulnerable, they need connection with their partner more," said Johnson. "If your partner doesn't know how to give it, or you don't know how to ask for it … the relationship is suddenly going to go into 'the red zone.'"

Suddenly having more time alone together can magnify the negative aspects of a relationship, Johnson said.

"If, with that time together, you suddenly recognize that all you do is fight, or that you suddenly recognize that actually you can't talk about anything and you've become amazingly distant, then that gets really heavy."

Coping strategies lost

Many partners have lost access to their go-to coping strategies as a result of physical distancing measures, said Tracie Lee, a registered psychotherapist at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships in Centretown.

Whether it's pouring oneself into work or blowing off steam at the gym, people turn to these activities to help them deal with uncomfortable emotions.

In their absence, people in relationships are forced to confront issues that normally could have been swept under the rug.

"Not only are we sort of confronted with these difficulties in a more acute way but we also don't have the regular outlets that we would seek to help us sort of feel stable and to help us regulate ourselves," Lee said.

She added that she's seen an increase in referrals to over the past month for couples seeking counselling.

Opportunities for growth

While life during the COVID-19 pandemic is straining some relationships, it's creating an opportunity for growth in others.

Joy Tabakman, a couples counsellor with a private practice, said some of her clients are reporting an increase in quality of life because they have more time for family activities like cooking, riding bikes and going for walks.

"Some people are seeing the gifts in COVID," Tabakman said. "They're enjoying the slower pace, and as a result some people are reporting that they're sleeping way better."

Lee said she encourages couples to engage in pleasurable activities to help promote bonding.

"It's really important to reconnect to that sense of being a couple and go back to activities that allow you to enjoy each other's company."

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