Staff Blog: Relationships During Quarantine

Created: April 22, 2020
Last Updated: April 22, 2020

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Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
W & J Staff Psychologist

We play this fun game during quarantine, it’s called “Why Are You Doing It That Way?” and there are no winners.

Relationships can be hard in any circumstance, but the current quarantine can make relationships with our loved ones more challenging. Most of us have acknowledged the dramatic change in our daily routine, but we may not have considered how our relationship has also lost its routine. Just like an individual, a relationship benefits from routine and care. It needs to be given attention and can benefit from structure. A relationship needs to be heard and it might make itself increasingly known until it gets your attention.

The quarantine has had a major impact on our relationships. Some of us are experiencing a massive increase in the amount of time we spend with our partners, children, or siblings. Others are experiencing a painful separation from loved ones or managing a romantic relationship at a distance. When at a distance, relationships can benefit from stepping up your game. It is important to actively stay in touch in order to maintain your sense of connection. It is also helpful to be creative and possibly introduce new routines in these relationships, such as video chats or screen sharing movies. In contrast, some relationships have become a 24-hour affair in a shared household.

One of the most helpful things we can do is to simply acknowledge that our relationship has lost its routine. Consider your relationship with your partner or spouse, children, or siblings. Take a moment to pause and bring to mind a few major ways that your relationship has been impacted. Have you spent more time actively engaged in the relationship or avoiding your partner or other family members? Have you noticed things you never realized? Do you find yourself more reactive to others or more judgmental? Are you increasingly short on patience? If so, you are most certainly not alone.

One of the biggest parts of our relationship routine that has likely been lost for many people is personal time. Having personal time allows us to focus on ourselves so that we can give more to our relationships. When we lose this time to ourselves, we set up a competition between our relationship needs and our own personal needs. In this regard, it is helpful to think of your relationship as a person or individual. You cannot simultaneously meet all of your needs and the needs of others. Therefore, it is essential to find time away from others so that you can show up for your relationship. Take a walk or drive by yourself, listen to music or a book with headphones, find a space in your home where you can be alone to read. Start a project that is exclusively yours. Opportunities to meet our own needs were inherently part of our old routine and we must meet our personal needs if we want to continue to meet the needs of our relationship.

5 Tips for relationships during quarantine

Ask yourself, “what it is like to be with you?” Focusing some attention on how other people are experiencing you can help you take a step back and be more intentional about how you approach interactions with others. It can also help increase empathy and understanding in your relationships.

Me time. Don’t feel obligated to spend more time together than usual. Although it is likely a great opportunity to share more time with your loved ones, it is also okay to ask for space, and this will more likely make the time you spend together more meaningful and enjoyable for everyone.

Avoid mind reading. Communication is key to making a relationship work and a cornerstone for healthy relationships. One common problem in relationships involves a lack of communication combined with attempts at mindreading. It is normal to try and understand things by filling in the blanks, but we can quickly get into a negative mindset when we make assumptions about others. Instead, try assuming that you can only get what you ask for and that your partner or loved one only knows what you clearly communicate.

“I” Messages. Another strategy that can be helpful for communication includes using first person language or “I messages,” such as “I feel ______, when you______.” Rather than simply accusing, this communicates your feelings and provides information that the other person can use to change their behavior. It is also helpful to avoid judgmental words or global labels such as “childish,” “stupid,” or “selfish.” Focus on describing your feelings and providing a clear statement about the situation. It can also be helpful to share what you appreciate about the other person when providing feedback.

Collecting annoyances. Be mindful of your self-talk around little annoyances and don’t let little things build up. Often without notice, we can begin to collect annoyances and build an internal experience of another person that is colored with irritation and negative judgements. Our self-talk can become increasingly centered around these annoyances and the assumed poor judgement or lack of caring of the other party. As these annoyances build and as we repeatedly find confirmation of our annoyances, it becomes difficult to continue positive and supportive relationships. We may also begin to harbor resentment – a well established relationship red flag. When we do manage to contain our annoyances and avoid acting out towards others, the annoyances get back at us and we can end up turning against ourselves, becoming increasingly self-critical or depressed. Notice where your attention is and how often you find yourself feeling annoyed by your partner or another family member. When you catch yourself feeling annoyed, take a minute to step back and recall the bigger picture. What are you telling yourself? Are you building up a collection of annoyances without realizing? Are you able to let this annoyance go? If you can, connect with feelings of compassion, understanding, and acceptance as well as your sense of caring for your partner or other family members.

Express appreciation and give compliments. Try complimenting your partner or loves ones three times this week and see if you notice any differences in your relationships. This simple act can shift the communication away from noticing an annoyance and generate positive feelings. It can also provide a needed boost to your partner or loved ones and shows that you are noticing and caring about them. It might even change the atmosphere in your home as you begin to pay more attention to the things you appreciate in those you care most about.

Relationships are both challenging and essential to our well-being. In many ways, this might be most apparent to us now as we face both separation or the near constant presence of loved ones. Therapists dating back to Freud have reflected on the philosopher Schopenhauer’s porcupine fable to describe our problems in human relationship and intimacy. To paraphrase, a group of porcupines huddle close together on a cold day in winter, but soon they begin to poke each other with their quills. This causes them to separate and spread out to get relief. However, once separated, they begin to shiver in the cold, which causes them to return again to one another for warmth, and the cycles repeats. The porcupines are a great metaphor for our relationship dance as we navigate boundaries and work to find a balance with those in our lives we care about. It may also encourage us to be compassionate toward ourselves and others, knowing that such a balance is not always easy and that we will occasionally poke one another despite out best efforts.

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