Marriage is hard work, when your life is busy.
You set the alarm early, race the kids to school, hopefully manage to make it to work on time, pat your hair down (to maintain some semblance of professionality), whirl though an endless dance of meetings and clients, sprint off to your daughter’s lacrosse game by 5:30 p.m., grab the takeout for dinner, get your kids to youth group by 7:00 p.m., pick them up by 9:00 p.m., and hope—by the end of the day—to have a few spare moments to look your spouse in the eye and meaningfully respond to each other’s stories about how you somehow “made it through” the day, before falling asleep to Jimmy Fallon.
When you’re tired, hungry, preoccupied, and frazzled, it’s easy to get irritable, reactive, or unintentionally shut out the people we love the most.
But I’m finding that marriage is even harder work when you’re not busy. As the COVID-19 crisis has robbed us of our routines, our normal support systems, and the strategies we all use to bring ourselves meaning and pleasure, many of us are feeling tired, preoccupied, and frazzled, for entirely different reasons.
I keep telling myself that I should be grateful. After all, I finally have all the time and space I’ve longed for years. I finally have time to assemble photo albums, paint my kitchen, organize our closets, but I just can’t do it.
Instead, I’m listless, anxious, wandering around the house like it’s some unfamiliar landscape, neurotically checking Facebook and the news for COVID updates. I make lists of things I should do, but I stare at it with utter loathing and inertia.
I’m basically doing nothing…yet I’m finding it even easier to get irritable, reactive, and to unintentionally shut out the people I love the most.
Remember that we’re all grieving.
We, as a country, are suffering a whole host of painful losses in the past few weeks. Many of us have lost our freedom to make an income, meet friends for coffee, embrace our aged family members, or share happy hour with colleagues at our favorite pub. Scholar and author Pauline Boss might call the losses faced in COVID-19 an “ambiguous loss,” a loss that’s unacknowledged, unquantifiable, a loss that’s not supported by the cultural rituals we have for managing grief.
You see, when we have a loved one die, there are clear rituals to support our grief journey. We cry, we share meals together, we light candles, and we have a memorial service. We tell stories about our loved one and take a few days off of work to lounge around in pajamas and sniffle into Kleenex. The people who know us give us space, recognizing that grief is hard work, and we need time to reflect, mourn, and cry on someone’s shoulder. These are helpful rituals and structures that support our grief.
But with COVID-19, we’re facing a whole array of losses, and we don’t know how to grieve. We don’t know what to do—what structures to adopt, what rituals to embrace, how to connect with support—so our primary relationships become strained, and our energy gets depleted.
Five strategies for managing relationships during COVID-19:
1. Recognize that you are grieving and will likely grieve differently than your partner.
One of you may be anxious and fearful, while the other might feel calm and even dismissive. There’s a reason why the two of you fell in love, and it’s likely because you manage stress in different ways.
While you might initially have been attracted to how “laid-back” your partner is under stress, or how quickly your partner rises to action in a moment of crisis, those things that once attracted you to each other will likely become annoying or a source of contention. Over time, we have a propensity to want our partner to match our level of stress. It helps us feel validated, comforted, and less alone.
Seeking this kind of emotional congruity is understandable—but not realistic.
Recognize when you are responding differently, and give each other the freedom to respond in his/her own way. If you’re struggling with anxiety, take responsibility for meeting your own needs and find strategies to “self-soothe,” without relying solely on your partner for comfort and empathy. Call a safe friend, find an online therapist, meditate, pray, journal about your feelings, read a good book, or take a long walk. Recognize that you both grieve differently—and that’s okay.
2. Embrace your differing strategies for distraction.
We all need to keep well-informed during the COVID-crisis and take proper action to protect ourselves and loved ones, but our nervous systems cannot stay engaged with stress and grieve all day.
The alarmist media coverage can heighten our stress response in our nervous system and keep stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flowing into our system all day. This is not sustainable.
It’s important to take breaks: turn off the news, watch a comedy, laugh through an online happy hour event, play a video game, or binge-watch a show.
Many spouses and parents are concerned about their partner’s or children’s online usage right now. Recognize that Snapchat, video games, and television shows can be meaningful coping strategies during a time of crises, and do not have to become long-term habits. Try not to judge or criticize your partner’s chosen coping strategy, even though it might vastly differ from yours.
3. Notice and name the parts of you that are becoming reactive right now.
Observe them without fusing or merging with them. I am observing all kinds of differing reactions to this crisis in my body right now.
There’s a part of me that feels angry and defiant about “Big Brother” telling me what I can and cannot do, and even who I can and cannot take walks with. (“Only family members. No neighbors,” in Colorado right now!) This part of me feels adolescent, angry, and rebellious and wants to disobey orders.
I have a “paranoid” part of me who is hypervigilant about detecting a fever or any COVID-symptoms in myself or my children and is clearly overactivated right now. It keeps waking me up with anxious thoughts at night, misinterpreting my menopausal hot-flashes as “The COVID virus is here!”
I have a “lonely part”—wanting desperately to connect with friends, just because I fear I cannot. I have called more long-lost friends in the last 48 hours than I have in the last two decades. I am reconnecting with high school friends, college friends, and other old connections in each of the places I have lived.
I have a “doomsday part” that keeps nurturing grandiose ruminations about our loss of income and the state of economy. This part is worrying about my husband’s loss of work and the state of his employee’s jobs, and is bearing the weight of the world on its shoulders.
I have a “relieved part” that has been so exhausted from work. This part loves not having to go into work and is enjoying reading mindless novels and is binging episodes of “Outlander” I have never had time to watch.
I have a “grateful part”—that keeps sighing with joy at the presence of my husband and children, safe at home, and knows that this opportunity will never be here again. Grateful to have this amount of time to make puzzles, play games, bake cookies, to watch movies, and eat popcorn together.
When we observe and welcome all the “parts” of ourselves that are becoming activated right now, we can prevent ourselves from “becoming” our parts and allowing one particular part to take over. You can help your relationships by observing your partner’s parts too, naming them and trying to understand them, instead of judging or reacting to them.
4. Be gentle with yourself and your partner.
Grief work is exhausting. As your mind struggles to solve problems it cannot solve or to control things it cannot control, it literally wears you down.
I feel like I’m running a marathon, even though I’m literally just sitting on my butt. Practice kindness—as if you’re practicing hospitality with cherished guests. Say sweet things. Express appreciation. Share affection—even if you’re not feeling it.
Common courtesy goes on long way and can be the hardest to practice with the people with whom we’re stuck.
5. Mourn your losses.
Grief expert Alan Wolfelt says that there’s a big difference between grieving and mourning. Wolfelt writes, “I have also learned that the grief journey requires mourning. Grief is what you think and feel on the inside…but mourning is the outward expression of those thoughts and feelings. To mourn is to be an active participant in our grief journeys.”
We’re all grieving as we weather the losses of COVID-19. But if we want to find a healing path through this, we must also mourn. This means expressing the nature of our losses in a safe place, which may or may not include our partner.
Write down all the ways that your life has changed since COVID-19. Find an online therapist. Talk with a friend about your fears, anxieties, and needs. Feel free to share your “dark” emotions as well as your inspiring ones.
Make room for the whole repertoire of emotions, and know that you’re not alone.