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Tips for Cooped-up Partners to Strengthen Relationships

It can be a challenge for some of us to escape the continuous news cycle about COVID-19 these days. It’s natural to be concerned about what’s happening on the coronavirus frontlines. The problem is when a person cannot distinguish between being concerned versus being frequently fearful and anxious causing a problem with their ability to function day-to-day function and be happy. Such excess anxiety interferes with one’s personal and social relationships and causes trouble with managing tasks at home, work, and/or school. 

Today, let’s just focus on social relationships. Stress has to go somewhere.  For some of us, stress is often aimed directly at our partners especially since couples are often trying to balance several heavy-loaded stressors all at once. This could include, but is not limited to, financial, work, health, loss of childcare, home schooling, more frequent cleaning and cooking, and/or decreased external socialization. The list goes on and on. For some, it's truly an impossible task to keep up with all the daily demands. The collective weight of the added burden any relationship, even strong ones.

Strong communication under periods of stress is critical to alleviating unnecessary stress.  It often means engaging in difficult conversations even when we don’t have the script (or energy) to navigate them. The tips below are for anyone who wants to avoid and prevent communication breakdown and cut excess stress out of their lives. 

 

  1. Get out of your head.

Thinking about your concerns is warranted. Just make sure to not get stuck in a vicious cycle of ruminating on your worries (aka., overthinking). This is how we lose track of time and cause more harm than good. Even though you may believe the brain thinks it’s being productive, in actuality we are dissociating with ourselves and creating negative emotions. By not being able to consciously attend to ourselves and others in any meaningful way, we are more likely to find anything in our lives too distressing.

Worries are fear-based. They are caused by not being 100% present with ourselves at any given time causing us to become reactive. Deep down we become afraid that we “missed out” on something important since we weren’t paying attention when we should have been. During a global public health crisis, it is easy to mislabel uncertainty as fear. These two terms are not equal. 

The most important ways you can “get out of your head” is by asking yourself:: 

  1. Do I really need this thought right now? 
  2. Is this thought going to help me?
  3. Does this thought bring me joy and happiness?

At the same time, you should clearly communicate to your partner that you are having trouble setting aside your preoccupations. “If you see me in my head, please tell me in a soft tune, and I'll do my best to step back. I really want to be here with you." Such compassionate, considerate words state your intentions clearly, and inform your partner that you are open to feedback. This creates an all-around more supportive environment.

Another tip is just give yourself five minutes a day to get all your worrying out. Say it. Write it. Whatever feels right to you.  At the end of the five minutes, you're done and can now move on with your day. If you have other concerns that you catch yourself worrying about later in the day, breathe and tell yourself, ‘I will save this for tomorrow when I'm going to get my concerns out again.’”

 

  1. Name your stress.

If you feel that everyone around you is on edge, step back and name specifically what is creating the feeling. If tensions elevate and you start to argue more, acknowledge and name the anxiety-colored elephant in the room. It is so important to identify the uncertainty and the accompanying stressor(s) they bring.

For lots of individuals, but not all, anger is a preferable emotion (rather than anxiety) as it feels more active. Anger offers an illusory feeling of control when people are feeling out of control in other areas of their lives. Anger is also a secondary emotion, meaning that other feelings (like fear or sadness, for example) precede it. Hence, it’s helpful for partners to name those emotions for each other 

 

  1. Acknowledge the challenges you are facing.

Just because you are now spending more time with your loved one(s) doesn't necessarily mean you have a shared understanding of what each of you is going through. This in and of itself can contribute to anxiety. 

The reshuffling of our roles at home or our daily routine can be taxing. For example, one could have been in the middle of remaking themselves (whether it was progress towards a degree, a new career, or maintaining sobriety), but the way to achieve these goals and the promise these once held has changed. Of course this causes a lot of anxiety in one’s own identity and in one’s role in the relationship. You have to acknowledge it--to yourself and to your loved one.

Think very carefully about what or who your argument is truly with. To be frank, are you really angry with your partner, or are you angry at the reality of the pandemic? Don’t take it out on other people if it’s the latter.

 

  1. Choose your words with caution.

Words are the most powerful thing we have. 

Choose your words wisely with non-judgmental and non-violent language. Steer clear of insults, labels, and name-calling since it is not productive and causes others to become more defensive and/or shut down.

Speak with respect and integrity for it allows greater growth than choosing words with fear, anger, and uncertainty. If you would want to bring up a problem with your partner that’s been on your mind, be specific and clear about your objectives and goals. Use plain words. Stick to the present and DON’T DRUDGE UP THE PAST.

Remember, conflicts are simply a way for people to express their individual needs and create boundaries.  We can all become emotional. Tempers may flare, but it is key we not make relationship-ending threats or unrealistic/irrational ultimatums when we don’t mean them. If things are feeling dicey and have taken an unhealthy turn, consider saying, ‘We need time to cool off. Let’s talk about this later’”.  Working through problems productively helps both parties feel more secure and committed to the relationship. 

 

  1. Create private space and quality time.

No matter the living situation or size of your space, it's vital that couples find or create personal space. In addition to “Me Time,” it’s equally vital that each person maintain other relationships, even if they’re virtual. Social support is a dynamic protective agent against agitation, anger, stress and other negative emotions.

It may seem simple (or impossible), but spending time apart can be beneficial. It shifts the mindset and gives you both something new to talk about when you’re back together. When we share our experiences with one another, we're essentially learning and growing more. “Talk Time” (which comes from “Me Time”) gives us far more opportunities to see each other with new eyes. 

One of my favorite things to do at the end of the day with my partner is to review our day’s highlights and lowlights--these are things that reminded us about our relationship and what we cherish about it.

As much as time apart is helpful, quality time together holds equal weight. Some considerations during this time include:  finding and trying a new recipe, rediscovering a loved and shared movie from your past, or working on a project you’ve always wanted to embark on (large or small). If you are still at odds with your partner and quality time seems out of reach, that’s okay. Acknowledge you still need space and cut each other some slack. Maybe the goal is to just focus on having a functional team and playing into each other’s strengths. There is no “I” in TEAM ...

 

  1. Get help when you need it.

Finally, I would be remiss in my duties as a physician to not mention that domestic violence is on the rise globally because of lockdowns. If your partner is abusive, please reach out for help to ensure your emotional and physical safety. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has COVID-specific resources as well explanations as to what relationship abuse can look like.

If other relationship challenges persist, or it feels like you're fighting about the same things over and over again, it may be a good time to start couples counseling.

Access to affordable mental health care remains an issue for many people, but there are an increasing number of telemedicine options. In California, a directive requires insurance companies to cover telehealth and waive copays. This barrier has helped a lot of people get the care they need. Yet, if things are becoming a struggle, do not wait to get help, both individually or as a couple. While it may take some time to get used to virtual sessions, research has consistently shown that therapy over telehealth is comparable in its effectiveness to in-person treatment. Telemedicine eliminates common reasons people decline therapy:  commuting and not being able to take time off of work. This is great news!

Above all, don’t be too hard on yourself or your partner. No amount of worry will change others. Entertain the possibility that our fear may be stronger than warranted.  All we can do is control our emotions and understand that feelings are fluid. When your emotions are running too high or too low, refocus completely on your breath and get out of your head. Create pockets of joy and gratitude.



Dr. Bhandari and the Advanced Health Team Are Here to Support Your Health.

Our expert team of integrative holistic practitioners work with patients suffering from chronic health concerns.  We help our patients reverse disease by better understanding how the body optimally functions and providing personalized treatment plans.  To learn more and book an appointment, contact Advanced Health or call 1-415-506-9393.

Author
Dr. Payal Bhandari Dr. Payal Bhandari M.D. is a leading practitioner of integrative and functional medicine in San Francisco.

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