Couples in Lockdown: COVID Couple Challenges
couples in lockdown
COVID COUPLE CHALLENGES
Going through lockdown together has helped some couples to trust and understand each other more deeply, to communicate more intentionally and to feel more grateful for the mutual support. Psychologists are also hearing from couples who are starting to resent each other, argue more, even question their relationships and living arrangements.
Some of the stressors facing Covid lockdown couples include:
The coronavirus has forced us to suddenly grapple with issues of sickness, death, job loss, dwindling finances, interrupted sleep, or lack of control. Health care and essential workers worry about infecting themselves and their partners. As our individual anxieties heighten, it’s easy to turn on each other, especially if our emotional or behavioural reactions to stress are different.
Many couples are also juggling family pressures: kids home all the time, endless laundry, cleaning, cooking. Older, at-risk parents are moving in, locked away in their own homes or at seniors’ facilities. Couples may find themselves disagreeing about how best to cope with family pressure points.
No Physical Distance
And, of course, many couples are home together 24/7. One person likes loud Zoom calls and the news “blaring” all day; the other prefers a virtual fireplace and a “freezing cold” window open to bird sounds. Many feel desperate for time and space alone.
Dr. Sandra Robinson, Distinguished University Scholar Chair and Professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, has done extensive research in the area of Territoriality, or behavior that screams ‘that’s mine!’ “Having a space of one’s own serves both functional and psychological needs,” she explains. “It gives people a sense of control (something we may feel we are missing a lot of these days!) and a sense of identity (I’m a writer- this is my writing den; I’m an athlete, I need the gym).”
Territory can also be objects, Robinson explains: “whether its food, or landlines, particular chairs or technology.”
“It is easy to inadvertently ‘infringe’ upon another’s territory and people are not always rational about it,” Robinson says. “For example, some may value just knowing they have a private space that they could use even if they do not. Someone then using that space may elicit a reaction that doesn’t appear to make sense on the surface. The ‘infringer’ may think ‘you aren’t even using it!’, but this ignores the fact that just having it as one’s own has huge psychological value.”
Core Personality Differences
Individual trait differences can be heightened during crises. The extrovert may need to talk through concerns while the introvert might prefer to think things through. One person may be a lockdown productivity machine – baking bread, working out, learning new languages – while the other sinks into the couch.
With all of these stressors – and with constant reminders around physical distancing – couples may be touching or hugging each other less, even though they are but inches away. The result? Reduced feelings of closeness and intimacy.
Given all these stressors, it’s easy for couples to feel overwhelmed. But, as Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky - Distinguished Psychology Professor at University of California, Riverside - writes in her research-based 2014 book: The Myths of Happiness: ‘Instead of being frightening or depressing, your crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change.’
Towards Healthy Coupling In Lockdown
• If you are experiencing domestic violence at home, please call 911 or VictimLink BC (1.800.563.0808) right away.
• If you or your partner are struggling with substance abuse, the BC government has a range of supports at
• The BC Government has also set up a website with links to supports during Covid-19, be it health, child care, employment, monthly bills…
Enhance Your Couple Communication Skills
You’ll want to avoid what world renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman - Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington and co-founder of the Gottman Institute with his wife, Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman – calls the Four Horsemen: Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling.
“In quarantine you can be bold,” says Dr. Robinson. “It’s temporary; no one is coming over that you have to entertain. So, original use of rooms and placement of furniture does not need to remain the same. A nook can become a place to nap; a dining room a TV room, or part of the kitchen a makeshift office.”
Together decide which spaces – however small - are primary (just for one person), which are communal for the two of you, and which spaces are public for all in the household.
“It helps to spell out rules in advance,” says Robinson, “but also agree to be open to experimenting and revising the ‘rules’ with practice as they get outdated or as initial ideas turned out not to serve everyone as intended when put to practice. Maybe one person thought they’d like to use the dining room to work, but realized the chair/table situation doesn’t work for their posture. Maybe the ‘man cave’ garage isn’t really being used as intended and would work better if the gym was moved there for both people.”
“Keep in mind,” Dr. Robinson adds, “that space can be divided not just physically, but also by time. So, communal space may be shared, but it can also be someone takes the office in the morning and the other person takes it in the evening. Or the den is communal space at night, but only used by one member as an office until 8pm.”
Show Active Appreciation
Try to verbally acknowledge positive efforts by your partner. ‘When we relish our partner’s strengths,’ Dr. Lyubomirsky writes in The Myths of Happiness, ‘mentally transport ourselves to days when we felt closest, or truly appreciate the present moment, we are not taking our relationship for granted.’ ‘Numerous experiments from my own and my colleagues’ laboratories have demonstrated that people who regularly practice appreciation or gratitude… become reliably happier and healthier, and remain happier for as long as six months after the experiment is over.’
Seek Support From Others
It is tempting but unwise to look to our partners for the additional social support we would normally get from family, friends, work colleagues and even casual acquaintances whom we would normally see in our day to day errands. Schedule regular social calls or video chats with others in your life.
Look Back Fondly
University of Southampton researcher Dr. Constantine Sedikides and his research team look at the positive effects that nostalgia can have on both personal health, mood and close relationships. ‘The emotion,’ he writes on his Nostalgia Lab website, ‘is often triggered by encountering a familiar smell, sound, or keepsake, by engaging in conversations, or by feeling lonely.’ One shouldn’t spend the whole day longing for the past, but couples can, for instance, relax together watching meaningful slide shows or listening to a couple-relevant playlist.
Develop Fun, New Couple Routines
Research from Dr. Lyubomirsky and others shows the importance of building surprise, spontaneity and variety into our couple routines. New joint activities - learning something interesting online, physically distant outdoor pursuits – led couples to learn new things about each, feel happier, closer and more interdependent.
Build Physically Safe Intimacy
Lyubomirsky writes: ‘If you feel bored or lukewarm about your relationship, introducing more (nonsexual) touching and affection on a daily basis will go a long way in rekindling the warmth and tenderness, if not full-fledged passion, that has been lost to time. Studies show that a simple touch can activate the reward regions of our brains, reduce the amount of stress hormones coursing through our bloodstreams, and diminish physical pain by reducing activation in the parts of the brain associated with stress.’
You and your partner might also come together, show mutual vulnerability and learn about each other through The 36 Questions That Spark Intimacy from Dr. Arthur Aron, Research Professor at Stony Brook University in New York.
Dr. Elizabeth Newton, Ph.D; R.Psych
For: BC Psychological Association
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