Ways to keep your relationships functioning well in times of stress like Covid

Relationships are being tested by the stress of Covid 19, the stress of staying at home, and other stresses related to the pandemic, such as income loss. Part of this is that couples are spending more time together and with their children. Everyone is home, more confined, less able to get away by themselves, be active or go places. 

Having to stay home creates anxiety and discomfort, but going out creates fear over becoming ill. Anxiety is often  directed at one’s partner (especially in relationships that already were in trouble).

John and Julie Gottman are a husband and wife team who do relationship therapy and have extensively researched good and bad relationships, what works and what doesn’t.  Here are some suggestions they make:

The Gottman’s advise that one person be the speaker, and one the listener. The listener’s job is to understand and to ask questions that help them get a deeper understanding.  the listener can offer empathy–acknowledging the other person’s feeling and agreeing that those feelings make sense. This will help reduce stress.

Here’s a tip:

Use “talking sticks” which come from an Indian tradition. Whoever holds the stick gets to talk, everyone else has to listen. Talking Sticks are particularly good for family meetings with children.  Any stick will do – a branch from the garden, a wooden spoon.  The children can color the sticks.

When stressed, people tend to focus on problem solving, at the cost of not paying attention to each other’s feelings.  Gottman suggests questions to uncover and share feelings such as:

  • What is your worst-case scenario?
  • What are you really scared about?
  • What are you ruminating about?
  • What can’t you stop thinking about?
  • What’s your “default program” that comes to your mind?
  • Let me know what you’re thinking.

Whether or not you agree, the Gottmans suggest you try to fully understand your partners thoughts and feeling, just listen and understand, not try to fix anything. This can make a big difference.

Their research has shown that being on your partner’s side in times of stress keeps relations going. Even if you don’t completely agree you can:

  • Find an aspect to agree upon.
  • Agree that is how your partner perceives the situation.
  • Agree that feelings, although not rational, are real.
  • Agree that thoughts and feelings are different and don’t have to be compatible.

When bickering starts, small disagreements, the tone gets  negative. 

The physiological part of conversations is very  important.

When the negativity creeps in, it’s good to stop.

Here’s the WHY:

During misunderstandings, heated discussions or arguments the mind/body goes into a stress response.  Heart rates elevate, blood is diverted into muscle groups and away from vital organs (like the brain!)  During stress responses the brain responds to what it perceives as physical danger. This is time to fight, flee or freeze in place – not the time to listen or problem solve. Take a break to calm your brain down.

Here’s a tip:

  • First, agree when you will come back together and continue.
  • Get out of visual and audio range of your partner.
  • Do something self-soothing that calms you down, that gets you out of fight or flight. Ideally MOVE to help dissipate the neurochemistry of fight or flight.
  • Don’t think about the discussion you’re having, distract yourself.

The conversation will be different when you go back to it, even if circumstances are the same.