"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." – Carl Jung
"How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it." – Marcus Aurelius
The Covid-19 crisis has instantly changed the daily lives of families. Pushed tightly back into our family units we are now spending our whole days and evenings with our nearest and dearest, and are more isolated from the outside world.
When families are forced to spend long periods together, conflict can be at its highest. In normal times it is during the Christmas holidays that the highest rates of marital strife and domestic violence are reported. Now with Covid-19, we face a much longer period of domestic confinement. Even couples who have previously got on well can notice their stress levels rising, and people can easily snap in anger and take their frustrations out on their partners.
Never before have we more needed self-awareness, patience and good conflict resolution skills.
Below are a set of tips for managing and de-escalating anger and rows for couples under pressure.
Press the pause button
There is a myth that in successful relationships you should always share your feelings with your partner. While this is true of positive feelings, it is much more problematic for negative feelings such as anger or contempt. Blaming or taking your anger out on your partner tends to damage the relationship, leading to defensiveness, hurt and reduced co-operation. Equally, the opposite tactic of bottling anger up so it festers and builds a wall between couples is also problematic.
When I work with couples in conflict, my first piece of advice is to always press the pause button. I invite them to take a step back from negative patterns of communication, and to discover calmer and warmer ways of communicating, so that the relationship is improved and not damaged, and couples become closer together and not further apart.
The most important communication skill is listening. Listening is not only the best way to connect with your partner but is also the crucial first step to resolving conflict. When anger is expressed towards you, the temptation is to become defensive and angry in return. However, it is more effective to pause and to listen first. Give space and time for your partner to express their feelings and thoughts – “You sound upset, what is bothering you at the moment . . . tell me what is the matter.” This can take the sting out of stress and upset. Most people just want to be understood and appreciated when they are upset and angry. Simple things such as acknowledging their feelings (“I understand you must be frustrated”) and offering comfort (“Let me make you a cup of tea”) can make a difference.
Speak up respectfully
As well as listening, it is equally important to find positive ways to communicate your own frustrations and upsets. Rather than being overtly blaming or passive aggressive or giving your partner the silent treatment, the goal is to find an assertive, respectful and warm way to communicate your feelings and state what you need. Lots of different strategies can work such as:
Start by saying something you value about your partner: “It means a lot to me when you take over with the kids in the evening.”
Using “I” statements and owning your feelings: “I feel upset when this happens” or “I really need this to happen” or “This is important to me.”
Blaming the situation not your partner: “This is difficult for both of us,” or “I know we are both under pressure to work.”
Sometimes it is a case of choosing your battles wisely and to focus only on the issues that really matter to you. Rather than raising a contentious issue, it may be easier to accept differences, work at compromises and let go of some of your expectations.
Different things work for different couples
Remember communication is an art form and not a science. Different things work for different people. One partner could feel patronised if you were using a listening “technique” when they were annoyed, but would instead prefer that you simply stay silent and to show reassuring affection. While one person may want to talk through details of a dispute immediately afterwards, another person may want some space and to talk about it later.
The key is to find a way that works for you and your partner. For example, some couples raise their conflicts only indirectly and briefly (as getting into the details causes a full-blown row) and instead diffuse their annoyance using humour to distract to another lighter topic. Other couples are happy to have a full-blown row, because it clears the air and they make up quickly and stay connected.
Time together and time apart
Even when you are spending the whole day together it can be hard to find time for quality communication and connection. This is especially the case when the day is full of struggles to care for children, keep your work going, attend to personal projects and keep a home functioning. Your day could easily become dominated by niggles and rows over whose turn it is to cook dinner, entertain the kids or to clean the toilets.
As you evolve your new routine within the Covid-19 isolation, make sure there are quality times together as well as personal times apart. This might mean that each day you aim to go for a walk together to chat and debrief or watch a TV programme together when the kids are in bed. It also means that you allow space in the day for each of you to get personal time alone, whether this is one partner reading a book or meditating while the other is on duty with the children.