Your COVID-19 relationship struggles
CBC Ottawa asked couples therapist Sue Johnson for advice on getting along with your partner in a pandemic
From too much quarantine-imposed togetherness, to struggling to stay connected amid coronavirus lockdown restrictions, COVID-19 is having a major impact on our romantic relationships.
CBC Ottawa asked for your questions about how to get along with your significant other during the pandemic, and found an expert to offer some advice.
It's part of our weekly Q&A where we tackle your questions on the impact of COVID-19 on your life, from finances to psychology. This week, couples therapist Sue Johnson helped take the pulse of relationships right now.
"I think it goes both ways. For some people, it's a chance to actually spend time together. I see couples having picnics together in the middle of the week. On the other hand, there is definitely a spike in couples for whom the isolation and uncertainty is stressing them out and they don't know how to comfort each other. So their relationships are actually getting worse," Johnson said.
Here's more of the conversation. It has been edited for length.
Q: Andrea says: I am married to a musician who travels quite a bit. During this pandemic he's been home more than he's been away, which is presenting its own challenges for us in that we usually work better when we get some time apart from each other. My question is: what can I do to help alleviate the stress that we're having of being together so much?
A: We know this happens, where couples need to balance togetherness and separateness, while still in a secure bond. Ironically, the closer and more open and connected you are, the more you can also be separate.
So couples with Andrea's issue can't feel safe enough to turn to each other and say, 'Look, I love you, but I feel intruded upon right now. I'm used to all this space. What I need is two hours in the morning to go into my office and play my music, and I need you to disappear in another part of the house.' In a good, loving relationship you can tolerate that separateness and it's still safe. You can say, 'Yeah, OK, I can give you that space. I like to be separate and different, too.'
Q: But what if you throw kids into the equation there, and there's resentment about needing that time apart?
A: In a good relationship people share the load. You're in a loving bond where people are open and responsive to each other and share the load of stress and work. Hopefully people can say, "Hey, I'm overwhelmed with the kids right now. They're driving me crazy. I need your help. What can we do here?'
People don't see that as a solution. We forget that we're bonding mammals and confiding, sharing, vulnerability and touch — that kind of closeness literally calms our nervous system and reduces the stress hormones going through our body.
Q: Hi, my name is Sean. I co-parent a nine-year-old girl with her mother. We both live in Quebec and we are disagreeing as to whether it is safe to send my daughter to school. I feel it's fine and I feel it's in my daughter's best interest psychologically, but her mother is uncomfortable with the idea. I haven't pushed because I want to maintain a functional co-parenting relationship. My question: how do you navigate this difficult time as a parent while keeping a good relationship with the ex?
A: That is difficult because you've got a history of painful conflict between you. But what I would suggest is that you get curious while keeping it safe. That's how we solve conflict best. You get curious and you talk to your ex-wife about her discomfort. What is she scared of? We get scared when it has to do with our kids in particular.
Maybe if they talk she can say, 'I just need you to wait. Could you do that? Maybe a couple of weeks and see what happens?' That kind of problem-solving can happen when people are respectful and take each other's emotions seriously.
Q: My name is Christy. I have two daughters aged 10 and 12. I work full time and am homeschooling my two girls. Both have learning disabilities. My girls haven't seen their dad in seven weeks and I have not seen my boyfriend who lives in another household since March break. We Facetime and talk on the phone but it is very hard. My question: how do you stay connected in your relationship when the world seems to be on hold, as well as with the added stresses of being a single mom?
A: I really feel for you. It's difficult because the way our nervous system is wired when we're stressed, out the one thing that we long for is closeness with the person that we really feel connected with. And you can't at this difficult time.
I've had clients who, apart from connecting online, send each other little messages and use other rituals like calling our loved ones special names. We reach out when we're particularly overwhelmed or stressed and share when we're thinking of them. We tell them they matter to us. I've also had people journalling to get their thoughts out on paper.
But there's no easy answer for this. We're stuck in all this uncertainty, and the main way we have coping with it is to come together. I would emphasize that you keep doing the things that keep you emotionally connected and maybe dream about all the wonderful closeness you're going to have when this finally ends. Because it is going to end. If we look at history, pandemics do end eventually.