Over the last year I have witnessed, as well as experienced, the impact that social distancing can have on our relationships. I’m curious, how has this impacted your relationship?
While we seem to be seeing more hope, we are still going to be fighting this battle for a while. We are still in a mode of constant risk assessment, both for ourselves and for the risk we create for others.
We have all done our best to stay sane while following guidelines for social distancing. The problem is, there are many gray areas. You can practice social distancing and still get the virus. You can be loose about it and not get it. You can get it and not even know you had it. It’s only natural that individuals will feel confused, uncertain, and powerless, and thus differ with regard to how they practice social distancing.
The Impact of Emotion
It’s one of the things that many couples are fighting about now. I experienced this in my own marriage. While we generally agreed, we did experience some tension early on. It was hard to pin down as the difference between our views was rather insignificant.
I remember a day back in March 2020 when so little was known. With three other 6-year-olds living a stone’s throw away, it became clear really quickly that managing our son was going to be a constant battle. One of his buddies was free to play anywhere, another wasn’t allowed to leave his house. As for us, we were somewhere in the middle, but somehow not entirely on the same page. In trying to decide how to handle it, I remember my husband pulling up the CDC guidelines and asking me to read them. I had read them. Re-reading them again, together, didn’t change our positions.
The reason for this was underlying emotions impacting our interpretation of the guidelines. My husband had experienced the loss of his mother at the age of 8 under unexpected and confusing circumstances. While I had struggles growing up, the big things were fairly stable including good health and a home with two parents. My husband’s emotional road map suggested bad things can happen pretty quickly, like really bad things. Mine said that while bad things can happen, things will most likely be okay. His approach was to do everything he could to prevent a bad thing from happening. My approach to dealing with my stress and anxiety was to take a deep breath and relax a bit. When I didn’t execute social distancing with our son with his preferred level of discipline, he felt more anxious, which led to frustration and tension between us.
As time passed and emotion settled we were able to see that we really were on the same page. We were just managing the stress in different ways. Some couples, however, are still arguing about this a year later.
You aren’t usually fighting over what you think you are fighting about.
In intimate relationships we are rarely fighting over the thing about which we think we are fighting. Your fight about money, kids, social distancing, and so on really is only about those things on the surface. Conflict is rarely about the content. What fuels conflict is the underlying beliefs and deeper emotions that get triggered. If I don’t trust that you see me or value my opinion, then that perspective is going to impact all of our conversations. Further, if I don’t trust myself, any indication that you don’t trust me will likely trigger me.
We all need safe and secure relationships. Our partner is our number one source. Because this need is primal, we will frequently be assessing our interactions to confirm whether we are safe and secure. If we grew up with a sense of security from our caregivers, we are more likely to believe we are safe and secure in adult relationships. If we did not, we will most likely struggle to feel secure with our partner.
The truth is, as human beings we are inherently insecure. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it does offer us some protection. We are interdependent beings, we are safer and stronger in relationship, with a tribe, or a pack. This instinct isn’t limited to humans. Observe any animal species and you will observe their interdependency. The key is learning to monitor and maintain connection in healthy ways and to avoid slipping into anxious or avoidant patterns of connection.
What you can do.
Here are a few ways in which you can more effectively respond to differences:
- Respect your partner’s perspective. Their point of view is valid, even if you don’t understand it. There are reasons we think and act the way we do so take the time to learn about the reasons.
- Seek to understand emotions before the facts. Don’t get hooked on the facts or the rules, because it’s really about what’s under the surface. If you are strict you are likely experiencing fear. If you are lax, you are probably seeking a sense of normalcy. Either side could be seeking a sense of control.
- Refrain from judgement. You might be tempted to name their lax approach as ignorance, or you might label their strict approach as paranoid. This isn’t helpful and likely completely untrue.
- Do not attempt to control your partner. Let them be them and you be you. Your partner might choose to go to the store and you might choose to stay home. In these circumstances it can be tough because we may be impacted by our partner’s choices. Yet we all need some degree of autonomy. Share your feelings with them instead.
- Compromise. Be mindful about how important going out, or staying home, really is to you. Is it worth causing discomfort or distress? Are you making the choice because it is important to you or because you want a sense of control? Be mindful of your motivation and consider the emotional costs.
What about the kids?
If your kids are old enough, share the information and guidelines with them, educate them about the spread, and keep them informed about the status of the virus. Let them be part of the conversation on how to practice social distancing. Empower them, as is age appropriate, to make their own decisions. If you don’t agree with their choices then keep talking to them. You may need to set some rules, but don’t do so without a lot of education first. In some cases you may need to say, “I’d like to know how you feel, but in the end we are going to call the shots.”
Couples, parents, you’ve got this. You are loved and you are amazing! Always remember, support is just a phone call away. If you’d like help navigating these challenges as a parent or partner reach out to us today through the contact page.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
LuAnn Oliver, LCSW is the founder and clinical director of Heartswell. She offers couples and individual therapy in Arlington, VA — and presently virtually anywhere in the state of Virginia. To learn more about her, send her a message, or schedule a phone consultation with her here.