I always say that a healthy family allows for each member to be a part of and separate from it. The same can be said about a healthy marriage. We rarely spend as much time as we currently do with our partners so we need to recalibrate how we think about each other and the time we spend together.
When you think about modern life, we are surrounded by so many distractions: the busyness of our working lives, meals out, friends, devices, the gym, etc all help to dilute our intimate relationship with our partner and family. So we get used to it. We might meet friends on Friday night after work and go for a run Saturday morning or some other activity, then spend the evening with the family and Sunday visiting relatives or going to the gym. Our time alone as a couple decreases significantly as we move through life.
The moment we bring children into the relationship we can never truly understand the pressure that is going to bring into our relational life. And they are many. But, like everything, we get used to living a certain way and a routine quickly forms.
I meet so many couples in my work as a family psychotherapist and often they seek out therapy because they know the banal routine of family life has disrupted their intimate relationship. They are coming to therapy to reorient their relationship so that they can find themselves again after becoming lost in the dance of parenthood. This is such a common issue in my practice. I think, as parents, we can all understand and relate to this dilemma. Parenting is a challenging and consuming role at the best of times.
And now we do not have any of the activities I outlined above to dilute that experience. There are no meals out, meeting friends or going to the gym. We are now stuck inside together. But I truly feel there is, in this experience, an opportunity to find that relationship again. This is an opportunity to reconnect with each other.
When I am talking with a couple in trouble I generally hear the same dense and problem-saturated stories. I often punctuate those particular narratives by asking a simple question: what was it about him/her that you were attracted to in the early days?
This can be a jarring question, because the couple have become so consumed with narratives such as ‘he’s lazy’, ‘he never does anything around the house’, ‘she’s always nagging me’, ‘she’s not my mother’, ‘I can’t trust him’ and so on. So all descriptions become negative and those earlier, happier narratives are eroded and forgotten. But when I ask them to describe what they first liked about each other the tone changes and generally a smile appears because they are remembering what it was like to first fall in love and what they liked about each other.
When they come through the therapeutic door they are dragging a loaded bag of adjectives to describe what they do not like about each other. They have had plenty of time to build that list and they are very happy to share it. So that question brings them back into contact with their earlier romantic selves.
And lockdown is an opportunity, I believe, to do the same.
However, if not managed correctly it could do the exact opposite.
In fact, divorce specialist Baroness Fiona Shackleton recently said, in the UK's House of Lords, that there will be an increase in divorces because of lockdown. She went further and stated: "One has only to imagine what it will be like when families are sealed in a property for a long period of time." In China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, sources reported a huge surge in couples seeking divorce after months of lockdown. So, the warning signs are there for us all to see. This is a challenging time and if we do not manage it correctly it has the potential to destroy our family unit.
However, if managed correctly it can widen and deepen those relationships and create lasting bonds that will improve our relational dynamic.
Tips for couples during confinement
– Give each other space. This is vitally important over the next few months. Once a day each of you should have an hour to yourself. Whether that is going upstairs and plugging out of the house for an hour by delving into a book, or listening to video on mindfulness, whatever your source of relaxation is you should have at least one hour a day to engage with it.
– Draw up a plan. Conflict arises when one member of the couple feels they are doing more than the other, or one feels they are being repeatedly ‘nagged’ unfairly. Often men, and I’m thinking about myself here, might need a little structure around what their duty is in relation to tiding the house. I often hear men utter the words “She acts like my mother.” That’s a great sentence to getting a therapeutic session going. Nothing can drive a wedge between a couple like a sentence like that. The resentment in the room is tangible. The woman resents the man for positioning her like that and the man resents the woman for treating him like a child. No woman wants to be her mother, and, sorry Freud, no man wants his wife to be his mother either. Establishing boundaries around who does what would really help the family dynamic.
– Exercise is vitally important for your well-being. Get out and go for a walk or a run by yourself and together.
– Check in with each other. This is a stressful time. At the end of the evening chat about how you are experiencing everything and talk about what could be better or what is really working well. And then avoid talking about it for the rest of the night. Don’t allow all conversations be dominated by the coronavirus.
– Manage your expectations of each other. This is a very important aspect of lockdown. As I have said, you haven’t been together like this since the early days. You are both stressed and finding it difficult to manage this time together; acknowledge it and give each other a break when you fall short of each other’s expectations. But like I said above, when you check in with each other bring it up in a calm way and without judgment. Easier said than done, right? But just think about this: when you say something with judgment and you back your partner into a corner, what tends to happen? Does communication increase or decrease? I would say it decreases. When someone feels blamed they become defensive and when they are in that position they cannot hear you. Whatever it is you wanted to communicate is lost.
When you notice something about your partner that annoys you – like say they didn’t clean their shoes before coming into the house or they are not picking their clothes up – wait until the time you have allocated to check in with each other to bring it up. Be calm and say it in a sensitive way. Maybe say something like, “It would really help if you could put your clothes into the clothes basket when they are dirty.” You are not in judgment with a sentence like this and you haven’t diminished your partner.
As a couple you have met many challenges and this is another one; try to view this crisis as an opportunity to reconnect with each other.
– Parenting the Screenager by Richard Hogan is published by Orpen Press (€17). The new chapter is free to download at orpenpress.com