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COVID-19

News >  Family

A time to unite: As sheltering puts strain on relationships, experts say communication is key as couples cope

UPDATED: Fri., April 3, 2020

 (Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn/The Spokesman-Review)

Even strong marriages can feel strained after hours in close quarters. Maybe the norm before was going separate ways each workday.

Throw in new pressures such as working at home or job losses, kids and COVID-19 concerns. Will marriages survive sheltering in place for likely a while yet?

“I can tell you what my husband and I are doing,” said Teresa Wiyrick, a Spokane Valley pastor. “We are spring cleaning and doing things that we’ve meant to do for three years.

“At the end of the busy day, we have a nice dinner and watch a movie. This is a good time to have conversations. Of course, it depends on a relationship.”

For couples together 24/7 for weeks, any differences can seem magnified. Perhaps issues were avoided or managed with hours apart. Now, nonstop conflicts can create a wedge.

Suzie Johnson, a mental health counselor, said she is reminded of refined silver – it must go through fire first to get rid of impurities.

“When thinking about a refiner’s fire in relationships, they’re in close quarters, and the temperature is getting hotter, so I’d expect to have some conflict in the home,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean that’s a bad thing. Look at those differences and conflicts – the things that are coming up – and that will give you an opportunity to get rid of those impurities that hurt your marriage and to come up with some solutions.

“Sometimes life is hard, and that fire is really about getting rid of the impurities so you have more pure relationships.”

Johnson offers marriage and family counseling in a private practice. She’s also a Frontier Behavioral Health clinical director of outpatient services.

During this time, she’s telling couples to dedicate at least 60 to 90 minutes a day together to talk and connect, check on the day and plan.

“Don’t just be lovers, be friends,” she said. “You need to carve out time to be a couple. Use this as an opportunity to reconnect as a couple.”

Grief and compassion

Joe Terhaar is a family and marriage counselor specializing in addiction recovery. He’s also aware of new difficulties under these stay-home orders.

“We’re all being forced into change from our routine of life. That is hard for everyone, and that will create extra stress on marriage relationships and for children,” he said.

“Recognize everyone is losing things. There’s loss of social contacts, income, routine, work structure, the familiarity we had and even to be able to plan right now. Weddings are postponed, as are graduations. All those dreams and hopes are suspended right now, and that in and of itself is a loss.”

His suggestions include more focused listening and letting each person in a relationship share what they’re feeling without jumping into what’s said, arguing or judging. Allow the person to describe challenges, loss and pain.

As that happens, others in a relationship need to try to learn from what’s shared, then people tend naturally to problem solve and weave new relationship patterns, he added.

“Take turns for giving each other compassion for what each of you has lost.”

Johnson agreed these times require compassion and to treat a spouse as you do a close friend. Maybe one is anxious about the novel coronavirus, but the other isn’t at all.

“What happens is sometimes we treat our friends with more respect than our spouse,” she said. “As part of the solution, we need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we offer grace and understanding as we would with a friend in this situation?’

“Are you trying not to dismiss the other person’s feelings? Are you being authentic and honest but also nonjudgmental and caring? Everyone has the right to be a little anxious. Offer understanding and support.”

Allow alone time

Maybe it works better for you as a couple in working from home to create separate office spaces.

That’s what Johnson would recommend so you can spend time apart, then reconnect for meals to talk. She also suggests keeping a regular routine for normalcy.

It could help both spouses to organize and clean the home environment to keep out chaos and promote calm, she added. If someone needs to have a “do not disturb” signal, some couples are doing that so a spouse knows not to interrupt a work call.

And if someone needs to take a walk alone, respect that, Johnson said. “Give each other space and respect if one says, ‘Hey, I need to take a walk around the block by myself. I’m not used to eight hours a day. I love you, but I need time.’ ”

Creative fun

Johnson has heard from couples who have decided to turn this time toward home projects or delayed activities. Some have started gardening that includes seed starts and plans to create the spaces to grow produce.

Or they’re finally tackling organization of the garage. She encourages finding the fun while laughing together.“It’s really as a couple finding time for fun and laughter,” she said.

Some are being creative about that fun.

One couple told her they planned an elaborate progressive dinner at home that involved their kids. Each person decorated a bedroom or space in the home so they could make rounds for appetizers, salad, a main course and then outside for dessert.

A colleague of hers told her about a family standup comedy night, while others are livestreaming homespun music. “These are new rituals, fun things that in years to come families will remember this is how we got through this and how we’re stronger because of it.”

Work together

Terhaar said couples can focus on helping each other cope and problem solve amid social changes, economic challenges and social distancing.

In ordinary times, couples may have been used to being more independent, even at home.

“So it’s figuring out how to collaborate,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you realize, ‘I don’t like this person.’ We have a choice in the moment. Do we want this to survive? Let’s talk about it and be mindful. If we want to make it better, there are things we can do different.

“We have to accept each other as we are on the way to what we’re becoming.”

She reminds each person in a marriage to check individual attitude. Is it about compassion or control?

However, if conflict worsens, she said people should reach out to a mental health or family counselor by telephone, or seek crisis intervention if safety is a concern.

But Johnson said she’s hearing about many examples of couples talking more to find solutions in tackling today’s challenges. They’re creating new routines and rituals.

It’s best if couples don’t whisper about stress or COVID-19 concerns around the kids.

“The kids are picking up on that,” she said. “Use this opportunity to bond as a couple on how can we make this better. Be honest with kids at their level.”

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