Living through a pandemic is stressful and is related to feelings of uncertainty. When people are confined to a shared space and spending more time than usual with others (e.g., roommates, family members, romantic partners), conflicts and tension are inevitable. How might stress and uncertainty undermine our close relationships and how could people work towards mitigating conflicts during quarantine? To answer these questions, we reached out to Drs. Nickola Overall and Jessica Maxwell, co-leaders of the REACH research group at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. One of the main focuses of the REACH lab is to better understand factors that might help initiate and maintain healthy close relationships. Below is a word from Nickola, Jessica and their research group on how to maintain close relationships during these unprecedented times.
Social media is filled with jokes about the spikes in divorce following quarantine, and there is some evidence that this time might ‘make or break’ couples. Being stuck at home creates opportunities for people to get on each other’s nerves, especially since we often take out our frustrations on the ones we love. Many couples will also be facing additional challenges that are very stressful, such as loss of income or trying to manage additional childcare. This increase stress provides a breeding ground for conflict and depletes our ability to manage conflict effectively. Below are some tips on how couples could reduce the impact of stress on their relationships, manage conflict if it arises, take advantage of the opportunity to spend time together, and parent together as a team.
Reach out and support one another
One important way to reduce tensions and mitigate conflicts is for couples to focus on supporting each other to reduce the impact of stress. But, support is not always easy. Providing too much support can make people feel like you don’t think they can cope with the situation. Providing too little support leaves people feeling unloved and uncared for. To get the right balance, couples could try to follow these three support rules:
- Responsiveness. Providing good support means being responsive to what your partner needs, not what you would find supportive. Do they want or like emotional comfort, or do they like practical advice to deal with the situation? Do they just want a hug, or do they want to stay up reading the latest news together? Listen and try to match what your partner needs, which might mean just being there without giving comfort or advice.
- Reciprocity. People cope best when they are able to give as much support as they receive. Be open and express your concerns to provide the opportunity for your partner to provide support in return. This can mean sharing the household load, having turns taking a break or talking about your concerns, and balancing the stress of the situation with quality time together.
- Reach widely. Remember that you need to keep physical, not emotional, distance from other people. Now more than ever it is important to connect with your wider social network. Reaching out to your family, friends and colleagues can help remind you how many people you have in your corner, and this will reduce the pressure on your relationship.
Acknowledge conflicts and face challenges together
Of course, even couples who are banding together to help each other through this time of uncertainty will inevitably face tensions and conflict at some point. Try to follow these three Cs to manage conflict:
- Communicate. Resolving conflict requires couples to understand each other’s perspective, which can’t happen when you try to stifle your dissatisfaction with your partner or withdraw from each other. Try to express what is upsetting you so your partner understands how to help address the issue, and in turn be prepared to address your partner’s concerns by being motivated to solve any problems that arise.
- Cool off. Being overwhelmed with anxiety or anger interferes with our ability to listen to our partner and express negativity in a constructive way. If negative emotions run high, allow each other to cool off (go to separate rooms or take a walk if you can), and make sure you agree to regroup to discuss the issue more calmly when you are ready
- Commit to being a team. Working through negativity and conflict provides the opportunity to improve relationships. Committing to getting through this time together as a team puts any frustrations in context; this is a hurdle you can overcome together in ways that can strengthen your relationship.
Spend quality time and grow together
Quarantine can provide a unique opportunity for people in close relationships to have fun and relax together. You might finally get to binge-watch that movie or series that you both have been meaning to watch. Watching movies and TV shows together can even strengthen your relationship. A recent study found that couples asked to reflect on the relationships portrayed in movies were less likely to divorce. See this list of movies to watch and questions to discuss with your partner.
Another great way to boost mood, be connected, and lower stress is having sex. The jokes on social media predicting “quarantine babies” arriving in 9 months do capture a truth: slowing down our busy lives creates more opportunities for intimacy. But, remember that it is normal for anxiety to reduce sexual desire. Just being emotionally and physically affectionate (e.g., cuddling, joking around) can help lift mood and combat stress. Taking the opportunity to reminisce about good times in the past, play games and have fun, try new activities together, or dream about what you would like to do in the future, are great ways to feel closer and more connected. For some fun couple activities to increase intimacy, see 36 questions you can ask your partner, 8 "dates" to have with your partner at home, or learn together by taking a free online course on the science of happiness, or on how to cook.
Parent together as a team
Managing conflict, supporting each other and spending quality time together is all harder if you are also looking after children at home. This change in family routine may pose unique challenges. One parent might interfere with the typical parenting routine of the other, or parents might communicate conflicting information about what children should be doing. To parent well together, try to follow these three tips:
- Share expectations. Effective co-parenting involves working together to establish shared parenting rules and expectations. Get on the same page of how you want the family to operate during this time (e.g., a regular school-like schedule balanced with TV and outdoor activities, or a holiday schedule of family time), and then try to share the responsibility of keeping this routine.
- Support each other. Try to be realistic about each other’s parenting—you aren’t going to be “perfect” parents during these uncertain times. Be supportive and appreciative of each other’s parenting efforts and be understanding when it doesn’t go as you hoped. Feeling like you are a capable parent is needed to remain responsive to your children during these times.
- Show a united front. Work together so that routines and expectations are consistently communicated to your children. Showing children that you are a united front helps children feel secure and enhances the wellbeing of the whole family.
Single or parenting on your own? The tips above apply to all kinds of social relationships. No matter who you are living with, managing conflict, irritation and sustaining positive social connections is important. Reaching out for support and providing support to others is the best way to maintain health and wellbeing. And the tips for parenting also apply to people caring for children on their own. Be kind and patient with yourself when things don’t go as planned, and try to be consistent in establishing routines and communicating your expectations so that you and your children feel like you are in this together.