Couples Who Quarantine Together…
There is an assumption in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) that, based on current circumstances, patients are doing the best they can. Never has this been more true than right now as we’re all doing the best we can to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of us is experiencing different stressors due to the current state of crisis, which may involve our families, our jobs, our finances, our relationships, and our health, among other things. The stress, anxiety, fear, and overwhelm can increase our emotional vulnerability and make us more susceptible to thinking and acting in ways that are out of character.
In my own life and in my work with individuals, couples, and families, I have come to realize that the people who are closest to us are most likely to receive the brunt of what we are feeling. There are a multitude of reasons why this happens, but these days it could simply be a matter of who you are stuck (or safe) with in quarantine. If you are under the same roof as your significant other ALL day EVERY day, you are likely unable to get the physical space you are accustomed to during the week. I, for one, believe that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Without the extended absence every day and access to other people and activities, you may find that tensions have been higher than usual in your household. So, is it possible to not only survive but thrive in the remaining months until life returns to “normal?”
Here are some relational coping skills that may actually help you to grow together and come out of quarantine stronger:
1. Be mindful of your emotions to increase self-awareness and reduce reactivity. Check in with yourself periodically throughout the day to see how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. Try not to judge yourself regardless of what comes up. For example, “I shouldn’t feel sad, disappointed, lonely, anxious, frustrated…There are people out there in a far worse position than I am” or “Everyone else is going through this too.” This self-judgement will not change the way you feel, and may even make you feel worse (i.e. more sad, ashamed, guilty, defeated).
Once you identify your thoughts and feelings, you can share them with your significant other regardless of whether or not it involves them. Instead of internalizing your emotional experiences, this can allow an opportunity for your spouse to listen and/or provide support and encouragement. Vulnerability takes courage and can result in a deeper sense of love and connection.
2. Validate yourself and each other. Whatever you are feeling makes sense whether or not you’re able to identify the cause. Acknowledge your thoughts and emotions, then ride the wave instead of ignoring, suppressing, or pretending they do not exist. All emotions are temporary and, while they can cause discomfort, they will pass.
Extend the same level of validation to your significant other by seeking to understand their emotional experiences. Remember, you do not have to agree with or approve of their experience, only seek to understand and empathize.
3. Use the STOP skill liberally to tolerate intense emotions and prevent from acting on urges of ineffective behaviors. This acronym stands for STOP, Take a step back, Observe, and Proceed mindfully. In a crisis situation, physical (or mental) distance can prevent us from saying or doing something in the moment that is likely to make the situation worse. This skill is very helpful to prevent escalation before or during an argument. If the issue at hand needs to be addressed, you can resume the conversation when you are out of extreme emotional mind and, therefore, less reactive and more rational.
4. Communicate. Do not assume that your significant other knows what you want and need. Everyone responds differently to difficult situations and there is certainly not one “right” way to respond to these unprecedented times. You can take responsibility for increasing the likelihood of getting wants/needs met by 1) identifying them and 2) asking your significant other in a respectful manner to increase the likelihood that your request will be granted. Be careful of the thought “He/She should know what I need…I shouldn’t have to ask.” Your significant other is not able to read your mind (if only!) and this unrealistic expectation will only leave you feeling angry/bitter/resentful and unfulfilled.
5. Discover something you can enjoy together. If you do not share a common interest, try activities that are new for both of you. This may require some creativity and willingness to step outside of the box. Challenge yourselves to do it! You never know what you might find that you’ll want to continue beyond quarantine.