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COVID-19 and Couples: Being Less Reactive and More Vulnerable

Frustrated couple on a couch at home.If your relationship with your significant other is suffering right now, you’re not alone. Relationships go through ups and downs in the best of circumstances, but the arrival of COVID-19 has put many relationships under unprecedented strain.

Where the spheres of life were once clearly demarcated by the distinct rhythms of the workday, home life, and weekend activities, now many couples find themselves interacting 24/7, often in cramped quarters, with little opportunity for escape. Everywhere is work (or the despair of unemployment), parenting, cleaning, and cooking. New responsibilities have emerged as parents are forced to take on the emotional, instructional, and technological charge of online schooling. Internally, uncertainty about the future, and the fear of sickness or loss from infection, can create a constant buzz of anxiety with periodic outbursts of sadness.

Typical coping strategies fray in this environment, whether a relationship was strong or in need of shoring up before the pandemic started. Couples are finding it much harder, if not impossible, to regulate their emotions.

When distressed, one or both members move to a fight or withdrawal response much more quickly. This, in turn, leads to more arguing, and both people feeling alone, misunderstood, and hopeless. Rather than finding your partner a source of solace and support, which would decrease stress, your partner becomes another burden or stressor to contend with.

One of my clients described life with their partner since the onset of the pandemic as: “Walking on eggshells and waiting for the next explosion or icy silence.”

Understanding the Internal Landscape of Yourself and Your Partner

When working with couples during COVID-19, my first priority is to help them see what is happening between them: how they come to set each other off so quickly, fail to understand each other’s emotions or perspectives, and move further and further apart from one another.

Reactive stances develop in childhood and trail us the rest of our lives, even after they’ve outgrown their usefulness.When under extreme stress, we tend to revert to what I call our “reactive stance.” These are the emotions and actions we exhibit when we are feeling unsafe.

Reactive stances develop in childhood and trail us the rest of our lives, even after they’ve outgrown their usefulness.

“When I was a kid, when my dad yelled, I’d hide up in my room. I’m still doing that,” said one man in therapy.

“My mom was a yeller. I hated when she’d yell, but she did seem to have all the power in the family,” said a woman who was recognizing she yells when feeling threatened.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a tumultuous and unpredictable time for everyone and, as a result, our nervous systems are more regularly in a heightened state of alert. As we worry about both the present and future, we may find ourselves in our reactive stance much more frequently. A reactive stance looks different in each of us, and often people find that their partner’s reactive stance is the opposite of their own.

On one end of the reactive stance spectrum, there is extreme vigilance or protest. Picture someone demanding that their mate abides by their forceful directives for sanitizing groceries, or someone pressing their partner to nurture and care for them given their fear about contracting the virus, disappointment about their postponed wedding, or concern about a potential job layoff.

On the other end of the reactive stance spectrum, we see withdrawal and avoidance. Picture someone shut up in their room feeling like it’s not worth trying to make their partner happy or the situation better because nothing they ever do is right and they’re never appreciated.

Over time, a never-ending, negative synergy cycle develops between the couple. The more one pushes their partner to take a particular action, show emotion, or increase communication, the more the other retreats and shuts down. The more one retreats and shuts down, the more the other expresses exasperation over their partner’s lack of action and sensitivity. Both wind up feeling lonely and misunderstood.

Seeing Your Partner In a New Way

The first step to reconciliation and connection is helping couples identify and understand the origins of their respective reactive stances and clearly see the negative cycle that develops as their reactive stances bump up against one another.

Couples feel reassured that they have not married the exactly wrong person (we often feel this way when we are in our reactive stance). Instead, they can see how their respective stances are feeding off each other, creating a destructive infinity loop that needs to be turned around.

The first step in stopping this negative pattern is to slow things down and notice how negative dynamics between you and your partner unfold.

  • What are the situational triggers that lead you to your reactive stance (e.g. my partner yells, or my partner is silent)?
  • What are the perceptions you have about the situation, your partner (e.g. my partner doesn’t care about me or understand me), and yourself (I’m not valued, or I can never do anything right) before you move into your reactive stance?
  • What actions do you take when you are in your reactive stance (e.g. I scream, I become silent, I cajole, I shut down)?

The more familiar you become with each of these pieces, the greater the ability you will have to question your initial perceptions, de-intensify the emotions that follow your perceptions, and shift your actions in response to your partner.

Knowing that your partner, when at their worst, is really struggling to manage intolerable feelings brewing up inside can help you have some empathy and shift your view of them.Second, it is important to remember that when your partner is in their “reactive stance”–seemingly a relentless alarmist or an unfeeling stone–they are actually suffering greatly and feeling vulnerable in ways they may not be conscious of or may not know how to express. That relentless alarmist is actually terrified and lonely, and that unfeeling stone is actually filled with a sense of inadequacy and sadness. Knowing that your partner, when at their worst, is really struggling to manage intolerable feelings brewing up inside can help you have some empathy and shift your view of them.

Risking Vulnerability

Finally, this is the time to take risks by trying to alter your reactive stance while having patience for your partner’s. It is not a time to keep score, to be right, or to harbor resentments.

Decide if an issue being discussed is worth going to the mat for, or if it is one you can let go, without resentment, for the sake of sustaining peace and harmony. If an issue truly matters to you, than talk to your partner about it from the place of vulnerability that underlies your reactive stance. In doing so, your partner is more likely to hear you and be responsive. Then you, in turn, are more likely to feel seen, understood, and connected to your partner.

Understanding how our reactive stance fuses with our partner’s and learning how to alter our reactive stance so we are more likely to be heard is not easy. It takes time, patience, and a willingness to be vulnerable.

Sometimes it is useful to seek the guidance of a professional to help manage the difficult feelings that arise. The benefits of this work are profound. Couples can experience a reduction in the intensity and frequency of arguments, and they can develop a deeper understanding of and connection to one another.

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