Ask The Therapist: How To Build Connection In Crisis
By: Ted Harro
I caught up with The Therapist to ask her about how social isolation can affect connection between couples. Actually, it was easy to catch up with her because we’re on house arrest together. But still…
There are reports of increased divorce rates in China since the orders for self-isolation. Assuming that’s true, what do you think would cause that?
Well to start with, you’re in social isolation together. Maybe there was a known disintegration in the relationship, but couples weren’t having to deal with it when life was normal. Or they discovered how different they were because of all of the time spent together. I find it very believable this could happen because that kind of intense stress reveals cracks in the foundations of any relationship.
I’m sure some of the tension couples experience just comes from the nutty situation we’re all experiencing. When should a couple be concerned that the disconnection they’re experiencing is more serious than simple corona cabin fever?
A key question is whether a couple can repair damage after tension. It’s one thing to have a short fuse in the moment because of all the stress, and then to be able half an hour later or the next morning to say, “I’m sorry, I lost it there.” But if conflict escalates or turns into an icy silence for a couple of days, that’s a signal of something more serious. Another question is whether contempt is creeping into the relationship.
What does contempt look like? And please, don’t say to go look in the mirror. That’s not helpful.
Contempt is criticism that puts the other person down. It attacks the person instead of the behavior.
What makes it challenging for couples to face a situation like this pandemic? I mean, besides the threat of death and destruction.
It’s the same challenge as in normal circumstances. Couples show a lot of reactive emotion like anger or frustration and aren’t tuned into the underlying emotions like fear or sadness. When we can express those underlying emotions and feel heard by our spouse, we can feel soothed and reconnected. If we’re feeling those emotions and show irritation – and get irritation back – we feel farther and farther apart.
That’s what happens in normal circumstances. It’s just that we’re in very pressured circumstances now and we can’t get away from each other. You’re penned in. You can’t go for a walk and think clearly. You’re constantly interrupted, cooped up, and emotional. That spills over. That’s what makes this situation more challenging.
How can a couple use this situation to increase their connectedness?
The opportunity comes if couples can slow down and get at the primary emotions – feelings like sadness, fear, and shame. “The world feels out of control and I feel very scared. And I need to know you’re here with me. You can’t fix it but just tell me you’re here.”
That’s your normal Therapist answer, for goodness sake! You’re killing me. How is that different from everyday life?
Yup, that’s my normal answer. It’s not that different. It’s just more intense. But if you have a spouse who is unavailable even when they’re with you 24/7, you’re going to feel it a lot more than if everything is busy. If I hear my friends talking about playing games as a family during quarantine and you’re checked out on your phone, I’m wondering, “Man! What’s wrong with us?”
(Puzzled silence) That’s how it can be worse. But what about making it better? I’m trying to find the silver lining here!
Here’s how we can make it better: No one can go to a soccer game or be out of the house during this time, so let’s go for a walk together, make dinner together, eat it together, clean up together. There’s an opportunity to be present to each other because there is literally nowhere else to go.
OK, I know it’s the right Therapist advice to “be present,” but how do you do that when you’re trying to hold down your job, the kids are running around, and it’s crazy? That seems like a perfect environment to check out. In fact, just thinking of it makes me want to hit Netflix right now. So how do you stay present in those circumstances?
You have to be very deliberate. You have to make agreements on how to share the load of running the family – as a way to be supportive of each other – and then at the end of the day, making time to be together. If the kids are little, have them watch a show while you spend time together. You may have to make a date night at home, closing the door on the kids so that you can make time for the two of you. I know one couple who ends up in their walk-in closet because it’s the one place they can have quiet together.
And it’s about being brave enough to ask for what you need and being willing to give your partner what your partner needs.