The pandemic, the lockdown and your relationship

Today’s news that the UK’s lockdown will be extended for a further three weeks may well be very bad news for some relationships. In this article, relationship psychotherapist Nicholas Rose writes about how relationships are being affected, how to know if your relationship is struggling and importantly, what to do about it.

News reports are full of articles about the impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on peoples mental health. Many articles are also very helpful in suggesting ways to limit the impacts for example, being careful not to check the news too often, keep in touch with friends and family, find new ways to keep fit, build yourself a new routine etc but not much has been written about managing relationships. Reports of increased anxiety, depression and domestic abuse are easy to find and the statistics from our own website show that there’s a significant increase in people looking for help with anger.

On my daily exercise outing today I heard a couple having an argument that, from the few words I heard, was full of anger. Harsh words were indeed being uttered and I felt sad thinking about how much pain was in their interaction. It was that last experience that led me to think this article might be useful because it reminded me that the current context is one that has the potential to derail relationships.

What is different about the situation that we find ourselves in regarding our relationship is that it is a situation faced by both partners at the same time - often challenges to a relationship come from one partner having a bereavement, losing a job, having poor health and the relationship can often more easily absorb the difficulties. This current situation affects both partners, their respective coping mechanisms kick in and suddenly huge gaps in understanding can appear, each others behaviour is experienced by the other as threatening or uncaring and conflict can arise. In my experience such situations include loss of a child, infertility, bankruptcy, migration etc so concerns which result in a major loss for both partners. 

At the present time we are all experiencing the loss of our daily routines, loss of certainty around things that previously were taken for granted and the loss of certainty for the future. So now it is important for us to think about the specific impact on you and your relationship. We keep hearing that the pandemic is bringing unprecedented challenges, what it means for you can be revealed by answering these questions: 

  • In what way has my daily life changed since the pandemic started?
  • What have I found easy and what have I found hard?
  • What has been preoccupying my thoughts, how have I been feeling and what sensations have I experienced in my body?
  • What have I been doing to cope? 
  • What are the coping strategies that I feel most proud of and which ones do I think are less helpful?
  • Thinking back to other times in life when I have faced a period of change in what way did my behaviour change and is that happening to me again now?

From answering these questions you will now have a pretty good view of how you have been coping or not coping with the current situation and can now turn your attention to your relationship.

  • Thinking about your relationship now, what has been easy and what has been hard?
  • What have you noticed about your interactions with your partner? 
  • In what way might you have been behaving differently with your partner?
  • Thinking back to times of stress in the past in what way has your partner coped, what behaviours have they adopted?

Now that you have answered these questions for yourself there is one hugely important and crucial question - Have you talked about any of this together?

If you haven’t then hopefully sharing this article with your partner and using it as a tool to help you have the conversation will be helpful. If it isn’t helpful, if you’ve tried to talk but can’t then there’s number of important possibilities to consider.

The first and most important is that talking is something which may go against your partner’s usual coping mechanisms. That maybe they aren’t ready to talk, that maybe these questions are just too much right now. Remember if this is the case whilst it is ok for you to want to talk, it also has to be ok for your partner to not want to talk.

I always recommend you make this clear and say that even if they don’t want to talk right now you  are feeling - whatever you are feeling - and you would like to talk at some point. Ultimately if you reach a stalemate then it might be helpful to know that many couples who come for relationship therapy have reached stalemate and need the help of a therapist to facilitate communication. 

So even if you find yourselves stuck then help is out there.