Relationships In QuarantineApril 7, 2020
My direct messages (DMs, if you will) are a constant flurry of all sorts of things. Questions, curiosities, memes.
I love it.
But this week? This week was different.
To give you a snapshot of where we’re at, we’re currently in week 4 of a quarantine from a virus that’s impacted the entire world.
So this week? In my DMs was a noticeable flood of relationship questions.
It kind of hit me. We’re very used to transactional relationships with our significant others, between careers and family life, we’re used to the comings and goings. Those in a single life are used to having a choice between aloneness and togetherness. We’ve never been programmed or taught to know how to cope with something as absolutely nightmarish as a global pandemic, and to do it while managing life, relationships, kids, jobs…at home.
We’re in a pressure cooker.
In so many ways.
It’s creating a lot of awareness around our relationships and things we typically could leave at the door while we walked away and carried on with the rest of life.
While I’m no relationship expert, I have certainly had my fair share of bad, good, toxic, healthy, and a new discomfort for many in being alone for the first time, like this.
We have to remind ourselves that we are not in any type of pain Olympics. If you’re at home, working, with toddlers running around and FEELING that? VALID. If you’re alone and uncomfortable, lonely and lost? VALID. If you are for the first time recognizing some serious divides and issues in your partnered relationships? VALID. It’s all valid.
So let’s get into it.
The questions you asked, and my attempts to create conversations around them.
Expert? No. I’ll call on those throughout this as I can.
We’re Struggling To Manage The Home
If there’s one thing we’re doing more: it’s using our homes. So if you feel you’re just “failing” or “falling behind” drop that hot potato of guilt immediately, because literally never have you had to exist and live in your home like this, this much. If you were someone in the position to have access to support like home cleaners or childcare, you’ve lost that support you’re used to as well. It’s stacking up. The dishes, the rings in the toilets. It’s a full-time job to maintain, and oh yeah… you may also have an actual full-time job to do, and perhaps full-time kids as well.
In couples dynamics, it may (and likely) begin to create tension. Each with their own matters of importance. For me, I can’t handle a messy kitchen and socks on the floor. Shane’s is clutter and the fact that even as we organize, we have nowhere for it to go with donations and dumps both closed. The kids? Well, they are no longer existing in a world where things are done for them as they come home from school and drop their bags, run off to the park to play with friends. They’ve had to learn cooking and cleaning skills as this is an “all hands on deck” scenario.
But I’ll be honest. Just now when I asked Shane what his biggest annoyance home-wise was since the quarantine, I felt pressure in my chest worried what the answer might be (and might I be at the core of it?).
Regardless, we can’t do it all, and we can’t expect that we should be. So, let’s prioritize, and deprioritize.
A ring in a toilet doesn’t make it function less or corrupt your flow of life an overflowing garbage bin does.
So start with the things that keeps you functioning, then go to the rest. If we’re going to have that ONE thing that is our biggest irk, let’s start there. Let’s have that conversation. Condition being? You both speak. You both commit to helping with that one thing and being more cognizant of the rest.
I have also seen families taking the opportunity to create challenges and break up the work. Things like Day 1: Clean The Microwave, Day 2: Organize the Mail, Day 3: Tend The Yard.
Now, before we continue onto the next part, I want to just disclaim that when it comes to home dynamics it’s difficult to take into consideration all of the different circumstances. There are many families right now who are balancing one partner working outside of the home on the front lines, and doing so beyond their own typical emotional or physical capacity. It would be a wild expectation to layer home stuff on top of that. You do what you need to.
We’re Coping Differently
Hi, human! Welcome to being.
You are so unique. A different upbringing, different levels of capacity, a brain wired in entirely different ways than anyone else.
So, just because you’re coping differently in your partnership does not make you a “bad” couple. Because in partnerships, there are at the core, two humans.
Please remember that. I often forget it myself.
Being human means a lot of things and the differences can really lend themselves to the human experience and connection with others.
Not to mention, coping differently can be just as difficult as coping the same. If you both are in a need to curl up in a ball and cry, it can be downright crippling if your partner is experiencing and needing the same.
That’s actually the case for Shane and I. We came to the realization about ourselves after we did one of those online enneagram tests only to discover we are BOTH 2w3. So imagine what we’re like during an argument. We’re both on the same emotional level, experiencing pain and sadness in the same ways, making it almost impossible for us to comfort each other. But, on the other side, because we ARE so alike, we don’t struggle on opposite sides very often, and we rarely argue at all.
Which brings me to another layer that must be discussed…
Mine/Their Mental Health Is Worse Than Ever
Relationship or not, this is real and alive for most of us who suffer.
Years ago at the peak of my PTSD, I was experiencing flashbacks of things I didn’t have available to me in my memory. In therapy, I’d learned my brain had begun to protect itself by placing these memories deep in my mind. So when I began to work on myself, they began to bubble out.
It’s called suppression. It’s a coping mechanism.
I remember my therapist under the recommendation that I needed targeted trauma therapy telling me that “you simply cannot just go around and escape trauma, it must be dealt with”.
I never fully did. She told me that maybe 6 months ago.
I’ll be honest since I was feeling “ok”, I didn’t make the decision to heal further because I considered myself an exception. The one who got away from her trauma.
Then this all happened. You know, a global pandemic.
Combine that with my empath heart, people-pleasing personality and a social media platform for eyes to watch when society is extremely fragile…I should have seen it coming.
It’s like in horror movies when you’re yelling at the screen telling a supporting character to turn around, run, and please, don’t go that way (!!!). Only to sigh and grumble a moment later as you watch them be sliced to pieces, because… they really did think they could out run the threat or perhaps didn’t consider the threat great enough.
That’s the story of me and my trauma.
So surprise, surprise when I woke the other night with a flashback richly playing in my mind. My body contorted, and immediately tears stung my eyes.
No no no no.
I laid awake the rest of the night, afraid to close my eyes again.
My friends, we are fragile humans.
Many of us have trauma, fears, and crippling doubts.
While we’re attempting to outrun it, our bodies will fight us, our brains even more.
It finds you.
During great stress? It’s almost CERTAIN to.
Being in a partnership while coping, or a partner to someone who’s coping – is difficult.
Shane in our relationship dynamics is (as much as I hate to admit it) the “emotionally stable one”. I know, I’m annoyed by it too. But, he is delicate with me and takes my anxiety, and PTSD seriously.
I also have to recognize that he cannot heal me or my trauma. He can simply be there in any way that I can express may help.
At the end of this article you will also find some expert advice on this as well.
Now, this part is important. Because there is this saying that bounces around that “hurt people, hurt people” and while true, it is not an excuse for enduring pain inflicted by a hurting partner. It may help us frame our minds to understand why someone is being hurtful, but I have to remind us all that we are never a punching bag for the hurt. *If you are in any way in a violent or abusive (emotionally, sexually, psychologically, financially) please seek help immediately* It has already been reported that domestic abuse has increased by around 35% since the quarantine. Just because you’re at home in this “stuck” situation, you are NOT stuck, and there is support ready and waiting for you. There is no level of abuse too “silly” to ask for help from.
If you’re single and struggling, make sure you have a few key people aware of your circumstances. This way if the news is too much, you can ask those supporters to give you the key facts that may play into your new lifestyle. It also is ok to ask those supports to check in on you. You are not a burden. You are worth that support.
Our Sex Drives Are Not Matched
With all the jokes flying around about a quarantine baby boom and people announcing how much more sex they’re having, it can feel absolutely isolating and scary if that’s not the case for you and your partnership.
Whether it’s your sex drive lowered or your partner’s.
Extra confusing when we’re raised on this belief that men especially are horn-dogs and think of sex every 9 seconds. So why don’t they want it?
I called on my friend Shan Boodram, a certified intimacy educator, to help me answer this one.
Her response is so eye-opening and yet so calming all at once.
No matter where your sex life sits right now, this may help answer some questions.
Shan explained something called Arousal Confusion.
Arousal confusion is when you get horny because you have heightened anxiety and fear. That adrenaline pumping through your system can actually get misinterpreted as getting aroused, thus getting hornier in times of stress.
While for other people, it’s the exact opposite, when the stress weighs on them more than anything else. (So, they don’t have capacity for thinking of or acting on sex right now)
The body has two systems, fight or flight & calm and connect.
Some people can’t access their calm and connect nervous system while they’re in flight or fight. So there are two ends of the spectrum, stress coping in very different ways.
What Shan is explaining makes absolute sense in terms of sex in these circumstances not necessarily attached to attraction or relationship health but rather down to a more core stress response of our bodies to sex in a time of great stress.
Shan also prompted me to read a recent article in The New York Times about this very topic, and let’s be real – the reports aren’t in yet on something happening in real time. So the NYT went back to an occurrence in 2008.
One study that looked at the effect of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China on the reproductive health of married women found sexual activity decreased significantly, and not just in the week after the earthquake.
Before the earthquake, 67 percent of married women reported they were having sex two or more times a week. One week after the earthquake, that number fell to 4 percent. By four weeks, only 24 percent reported they were having sex two or more times a week, well below the baseline.
So let that just ease our minds a bit if our (or our partner’s) sexual response to this crisis isn’t what we expected. Nothing about this time is normal, so perhaps we have to stop expecting it to be.
Being A Supportive Partner In Times Of Uncertainty
For this, I consulted Ashley Mariani M.S.W, R.S.W, aka @MindOnlineTherapy.
Ashley helps break down this subject into a list of steps and considerations to take. I asked her for some contributing notes, and she really gifted us with so much. Thank you, Ashley.
Improve your active listening skills
Paraphrase what you heard them say, if that involves you asking them to pause while you summarize a chunk of their story, that’s ok.
Acknowledge their pain
Share how what they said makes you feel without dishing theirs: “Wow. I don’t know what to say.”, “I can’t imagine what you must be going through”, “I wish I could make it better.”,“My heart hurts for you.”,“It makes me really sad to hear this happened.”
Show gratitude for their sharing, interest, and encouragement,
Wow, that would be confusing.”
“He really said that? I’d be angry too!”
“Ah, that is so sad.”
“You have every right to be proud; that was a major accomplishment!”
“I’m so happy for you! You’ve worked incredibly hard on this. It must feel amazing.”
Is there any part of their experience you missed? Are they looking for your opinion or just for you to hold space?
If There Is A Formal Dx, Do Your Research
Read the books, listen to the podcasts, book the appointment with a therapist of your own, or couples therapy. If there is no Dx, listen to the words your partner uses to describe their experience, ask your partner what their experience feels like. Don’t assume that what you’ve heard or read about “anxiety” “panic” or “depression” is exactly what your partner is experiencing. Again, listen to understand what your partners experience is.
Deconstruct Your Own Beliefs, Attitudes & Narratives Around Their Struggles
Do you feel like mental health is “real” or just a matter of “choice”? Are you recreating an opportunity to step in as a rescuer? Does this experience remind you of a family of origin dynamic?
It’s not your job to heal your partner, it’s also not your job to exacerbate their situation. They need to feel understood and empowered to make choices to work towards managing their symptoms. What baggage are you bringing into the environment?
Separate The Person From The Issue By Externalization
You and your partner are a part of system, and when you work together in life, great things happen. It’s important that your partner doesn’t feel the issue defines them. They aren’t anxiety, or depression, or OCD, so give their experience a name, call it something that accurately describes what it would be like if it was a separate entity, sitting across from you in a room. Some examples of externalizing the issues involves asking questions like: Where does the “Issue” show up? Is it present with family? Does it influence your work/social life? What has this judgment led you to do? How do you feel about “the issues” influence on your life? Where do you stand on this issue? Is this ok with you? Why is it ok/not ok with you? When it the issue take over the most? When is it the least noticeable?
This way when your partner says to you “Chaos is really loud today, I think ‘Chaos’ will be leading today”, you can talk to your partner about “Chaos” or whatever name they choose, without them feeling like you’re being judgmental or critical.
All That Being Said, It’s Important For You To Set Boundaries With The Issue
Which may sound like setting boundaries with your partner. The issue should not be holding you back from living your best life, by accommodating the issue, you’re communicating that your partner doesn’t have the power to move through the experience themselves.
If the issue prevents your partner from attending social events with your friends, this doesn’t mean you need to stop visiting with friends. It means you set boundaries with the issue; “ I understand that ‘chaos’ is telling you that attending this event would be too risky, however, these are also my friends, and I’m not going to accommodate ‘Chaos’. Or, “Im worried that ‘Chaos’ is preventing you from doing the things you love. I don’t want that for either of us”.
It’s important that you take care of yourself, and find ways to meet your own needs. What makes you feel loved, nurtured, and full? Are these reasonable things to ask from your partner at this time or are there people and places you can access to meet these needs when your partner is unable to. *note this doesn’t mean having physical or emotional affairs*
Understanding The Brain & Nervous System
The Polyvagal Theory describes how our nervous system moderates safety, trust, and intimacy through a subsystem tabled the “social engagement” system. Our brain scans our environment through our senses to assess whether we are in a situation that is safe or dangerous. If it deems the person or environment is a threat, our fight, flight, freeze or fawn reactions set in. However, we sense we are safe, our social engagement system enables us to collaborate, listen, empathize, and connect, as well as be creative, fresh, and courageous in our thinking and ideas. This has positive benefits for our relationships as well as our lives in general. Our brain can sense things on a subconscious level, in ways we will never fully understand. This deeply wired system is firing whether we want it to or not.
A couple can focus on being more intentional about greeting each other in a way that reassured and invited the other in. As they practiced this, their eyes and faces softened, and their voices became calmer and friendlier. Soon, a new way of connecting is possible between them. Instead of dreading reunions, they can begin to look forward to them.The beauty of a nervous system that helps us survive life threatening events is that it also supports us in deepening our feelings of closeness and connection with one another. Our relationships are far from boring when we feel safe. Emotional safety enables us the freedom to be vulnerable.
Tap into the sensory experience of rest and relaxation, use calm voices and tones, do your best to keep the living space clean, think about soft textiles, foods and smells that feel nurturing. Avoid the news and other fear evoking platforms, seek comedy and playfulness.
As time goes on, we must recognize how nothing about our life right now is normal. The world feels upside down, so give yourself and your relationship grace for feeling “off” or “not normal”.
No matter where you’re at, I hope this helped serve you in this time today.
Take care of yourselves.