April 12, 2020

The Couple’s Shelter-in-Place Guide to Conflict, Communication & Connection.

Check out Elephant’s Continually-updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon


In these unprecedented times, with so many people sequestered in their homes in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus, relationships can be extra challenging.

Even though you may feel grateful to have your partner with you, spending so much time together in close quarters can be stressful.

It’s normal for any couple under these circumstances to be more reactive with one another. And if one of you is feeling ill, having to quarantine will likely compound your stress and anxiety. Just when we need each other the most, it can be a hard time for relationships.

If you find that the two of you are spending more time bickering, fighting, or staying in uncomfortable silence, here is a four-step process for calming your distress, increasing constructive communication, and getting through this crisis together.

In my therapy practice (and in my own life), I teach and use this Emotional Mindfulness approach to help my clients better navigate their feelings. In our current global crisis, this can be a useful method to use when you and your partner may not be able to spend time apart—or may not be able to use touch to connect—the way you were able to before the pandemic hit.

If your partner is willing to do this work as well, share this article with them and help each other practice going through these steps. If you don’t yet feel comfortable working on this process together, that’s okay. Taking responsibility for your own reactions will likely help to shift your interactions with your partner in a positive direction.

Step One: Recognize and Name.

The first step in being able to communicate what you’re feeling is to better understand your own emotional experience. Practice observing yourself when you interact with your partner, especially when you start to get upset.

Some common emotional reactions may be frustration, disappointment, fear, anger, and worry. Or you may feel unseen, unheard, or unacknowledged in an interaction.

Start to notice and name these experiences as they come up, silently at first as you learn to understand your reactions. Let yourself be curious.

Step Two: Stop, Drop, and Stay.

When we feel uncomfortable, we often want to escape whatever we’re feeling deep inside. But in order to better understand what’s going on, we need to stay with our emotional experiences, especially the challenging ones.

Rather than react the way you normally do when you experience frustration, anxiety, anger, fear, or another difficult emotion, stop. Try to stretch the space between stimulus and response.

You can do that by paying attention to how the emotion feels in your body. Describe it to yourself. Reflect on where it’s coming from and what it may be trying to tell you. As you do, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to practice not reacting in old, unhelpful ways.

Step Three: Pause and Reflect.

When we’re feeling emotions that are hard for us to cope with, we may feel like there’s no choice between the time the strong emotion appears and our response to it. If we feel hurt, we may immediately shut down, without making a conscious choice to do that.

But with practice, we can stretch the space between the feelings arising and our response to them.

So, practice staying with your emotional experience without responding right away. If you normally lash out with an angry statement when you feel frustrated with your partner, practice doing something else. Tell your partner you need a moment. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly. Doing this several times will help to calm your nervous system. If you can, go to another room or outside, if possible.

In this space that you create, think about what’s going on underneath the reactivity. If you’re angry, is there more to it? Are you feeling worried about current events, emotionally drained from being with your partner more than normal, or afraid of losing connection with your partner? Likely there are other emotions hiding out behind a defensive reaction.

Explore the emotion and give yourself time to figure out what you’re really feeling.

Step Four: Mindfully Relate your Feelings.

Once you know what’s at the core of your emotional experience, try expressing that in a calm and open way to your partner. You might include what you need from your partner or what you’d like them to do about the issue. Try to phrase your needs as a request for something you’d appreciate. If you demand changed behavior, your partner may feel defensive or criticized.

For instance, if you’re feeling hurt because your partner hasn’t responded to your bids for connection, you might say, “I’m having a hard time. I’ve been trying to reach out to you and you seem distracted. I could really use your support right now.”

Be willing to listen to your partner’s response and to work together to get to a better place.


These steps will not only help you and your partner be less likely to fall into old patterns of reactivity, likely exacerbated by the stress of current events, but will also help you to share the truth of your experience and feel more connected. This is exactly what we need in order to cope with this scary and stressful time.

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