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Corona and Couples

couples-in-coronaIllustration: Liora Blum

As a couple therapist for over 40 years, I was not surprised when Merle asked me to weigh in about couples during corona times. At first I thought "What could be said about something so stressful, and that no one has real experience with?" I was locked down like everyone else and only a few couples wanted to do Zoom sessions in the beginning. But as the time stretched I realized from couples who were coming back to therapy in person (with distancing) or on Zoom, that there really is a lot to say.

This article is a combination of my direct work with couples, as well as a brief review of what other therapists and researchers are saying that could help couples weather the storm of isolation — together and apart, days into weeks into months guaranteed, with kids full time, loss of work and income, fear about the disease and differences in opinion on how to handle the coronavirus.

In March, Jacob came home from an international trade show with a cough. He wasn't concerned. He slept in a separate room so that his hacking wouldn't disturb his wife, Karen. But within days, Jacob developed a fever and a sore throat so raw it felt like hamburger meat. He could barely sleep or eat. Karen says that immediately "The doctor told us it might be COVID-19." That possibility put Karen in an impossible situation. "I'm not supposed to be near him because he's sick, but he couldn't take care of himself," she says. So she swallowed her anxiety, armed herself with disinfecting wipes and became living proof of love in the time of coronavirus.

For the next few weeks, Karen woke up early to force Jacob to eat and drink enough so that he wouldn't become dehydrated, and returned to their house on her lunch break to do it again: "Feed and water the husband, then feed and water the cats," she says. Jacob took trips to their bathroom to have coughing fits, which would sometimes make him vomit; she wiped down the toilet with disinfectant and did laundry constantly. Karen worried incessantly, while struggling to keep her distance from him. "I have a real hard time with it, because I'm an affectionate person, and we haven't kissed since he got sick," says Karen. "I sneak up behind him and give him hugs from behind. We hand-sanitize and hold hands."

Not every sick spouse can afford the risk of infecting the other. When Shai, 30, found out they may have been exposed to COVID-19 during a recent stay with relatives, their fever, cough, shortness of breath and body aches suddenly seemed more serious. Doctors recommended they go into quarantine. Shai sat down with Tali, his wife, who is recovering from cancer, and told her she needed to leave their apartment and stay with her dad for a while. "We've been together for 11 years," Rowan says. "But if you're with someone whose immune system is compromised, you can't take that risk." Tali didn't want to leave. "As a wife, your first instinct is to take care of your spouse," she says, "How can he take care of himself?" Shai wouldn't take no for an answer.

The threat of COVID-19 is also endangering families' finances. "Tali missing work due to cancer has wiped out our savings, and now me being sent home has wiped out even more," says Shai, who works in a travel agency. "I rely on overtime, on commissions and bonuses to supplement my paycheck and make ends meet. Honestly, it's nerve-wracking."

However some couples report benefitting from the shut-down. Romantic partners are emerging from lock-down with a newfound sense of clarity. As everyone who has ever been a partner or even a friend with benefits — that is, anyone who's ever liked or loved anyone — knows, it can take a long time to muster the courage to say exactly what you want. Telling the truth about your hopes for the future can be terrifying. For example: "I want us to see each other more/ I want us to see each other less/ I want us to stop being this way to each other/ and I want us to stay this way forever" are all easy enough combinations of words to string together, but the hard part is finding the right moment to say them. But when the coronavirus pandemic took hold this year and upended life, many couples didn't have the luxury of waiting for the right moment. Social-distancing policies meant many couples had two choices, neither particularly appealing: they could "smush" together into close-quartered, 24-hours-a-day cohabitation, or be apart with limited in-person contact. Each choice presented its own challenges, and each one required figuring out exactly what the terms of the arrangement would be — quickly. If ever there was a scenario that could disabuse the notion that the "right moment" is a prerequisite for having an important conversation, it is now. Says one such romantic couple "But then all of this happened, and it just sped everything up."

Involuntary home confinement and financial strain against the backdrop of a global health crisis do not add up to domestic bliss. Yossi was quarantined in Afula with his wife Noa of 18 years and their four children. Yossi worked nights, but was laid off from his factory job. For the first time in years they were on a similar schedule, but their new abundance of time together confirmed something he'd suspected for a while: "We seem to have lost any kind of common ground." Yossi suggested they see a counselor. Noa suggested they split up. If the pandemic had never happened, their marriage might have limped along for another 15 years, neither party ever rising to the task of asking for a change. "This whole quarantine situation has forced us to face the problems that we've been experiencing," he said. "To stop hiding from each other through work, or through our different schedules."

Frightening, dangerous times can be occasions for people to reckon with their own mortality, with the fact that everyone gets just one precious life and has to decide what to do with it before it's over. This may be one reason couples living through the coronavirus pandemic have fast-tracked conversations they may otherwise have waited to have.

The intense time together results in "cabin fever". We go "stir crazy" and take it out on our closest person, our partner. Spending day after day in the same place can make even devoted couples stir-crazy. Even committed couples can start to become lethargic and lose sense of time, asking themselves, "What day is it?" A sense of monotony can cause a numbness to feelings, which is part of coping with so much uncertainty in the world right now. Though relationships can offer solace, it's important for each person to take responsibility for individual health and well-being. Like on the plane (remember those?) the instructions are to give yourself oxygen before putting a mask on someone else.

In times of change and insecurity self-care is essential. With everyone's schedule changed, it's important to establish and maintain some kind of a routine. For example sticking to regular sleep hours, waking up on time, making the bed and getting dressed each day. Eating nutritious foods is important, too. Scheduling breaks, such as a midday yoga video or meditation session, can break up the day and help partners stay grounded. I personally find meditation calming and there are hundreds of internet meditation guides that help to achieve relaxation and sleep.

For couples who are working at home, it helps to set boundaries between work hours and time spent together. The anxiety caused by the pandemic may tempt some people to lose themselves in work, particularly people who invest a lot of their personal identity in their professions. They might miss the routine, the meetings, the structure. Since time at home is fluid, it makes sense for couples to schedule work time, family time and time as a couple. Working can become addictive. Speaking of addiction, increased stress can aggravate habits such as drinking more alcohol, smoking or substance abuse. People in recovery from substance use disorders may need to be especially vigilant, because being stuck at home without in-person support meetings can raise the risk of relapse.

Exercising outdoors together can be a powerful way to reduce stress and strengthen positive connections. For couples that are used to spending time in the gym, it might require some changes to keep up with fitness and exercise when you can't work out on machines or take live classes. Some couples increase their time exercising together, go for a run or a bike ride, work in the garden, or take a walk together. These are the couples who turn a lemon into a lemonade. Couples who are more sedentary can start a healthy habit, such as regular walks outdoors together.

Kids sequestered at home create another whole dimension of family togetherness, along with overwhelming stress, especially when one or both parents are working from home. It can be all but impossible to do work, attend video meetings, help kids with home school lessons, and deal lovingly with their emotions and behaviors without a high level of stress. There is a lot of literature on the Internet for dealing with stress.

Staying at home to help contain a dangerous, viral pandemic is not exactly a romantic vacation. People are too distracted and worried, and there is a blur between work and home life, which creates overfamiliarity, which isn't very sexy. Yet research shows that sexual activity which is pleasurable to both partners is the third strongest predictor of happiness.

The level of stress, especially in young couples with children and those with financial worries, becomes incredibly high. Couples often channel that stress onto each other because they don't want to scream and yell at their kids. However, I am against leaning on any single individual for all your emotional needs just because you're under the same roof. It's important for both people in the relationship to stay connected with family and friends who can be available for them, especially with continuing physical distancing.

Though couples' pre-pandemic plans may be cancelled or postponed, we need to be creative and make new and different ones. You can take a drive together, plan a special meal, or if you have the resources, even make a small purchase that you can both enjoy. Apps can help couples get together virtually with friends for dinners, game nights or movies. The important thing is to create things to look forward to, even if they're small.

Couples who were in a good place before COVID-19 will have an easier time withstanding the stress of the pandemic, but even partners who were struggling before the stay-home mandates began can use the time to work through some of their problems. In the context of sheltering in place, couples can find opportunities to communicate and connect, working through feelings, even those around very painful situations.

Couples who have communication skills and had a basically good relationship can have a fantastic relationship during corona. Others who were not happy find that the danger of abuse might arise. This situation affords couples an opportunity to get to know one another through conversation. Those who were bad communicators will find they are awful communicators in corona times. People don't realize that they need to be on their best behavior. The home, which was our private space, meant we could do a lot of shouting or yelling with no terrible consequence. But everything is amplified during highly stressful situations.

But, sadly, only 18% of surveyed couples reported satisfaction in communication with their partner, with the largest source of conflict reported was how often to have sex, followed by purchasing decisions, then phone time.

40% of couples surveyed report spending more than 20 extra hours per week with their partners as a result of social distancing. This means that couples are doing a bit of everything together: binge watching TV (71% of engaged couples, 54% of married), working on home projects, cooking, baking and even volunteering. However, the uncertainty spurs emotions like anxiety and stress.

Many couples fight about virus risks. Should the kids use a public bathroom? Is bike riding with friends allowed? Here's how to deal with a new kind of parenting disagreement. Couples might agree on the big picture when it comes to minimizing their childrens' risk of exposure to the coronavirus, but may find themselves furious in discovering a partner isn't wearing a mask enough or is not washing hands enough. These small differences take on enormous meaning in the crisis, so some partners feel uncared for when they see lax behaviors. It feels personal: if you loved me you would take better care to follow guidelines. So while each might have different levels of prevention, it pays to go with the stricter partners' needs.

Relationship counsellors say they are bracing themselves for a 'post-lockdown reckoning'; similar to that usually seen after holidays. A counsellor in Tel Aviv, said couples 'thrown together in a stressful situation' could trigger a 'surge' in relationship breakdowns. A UK-wide poll of 2,000 people at the start of lockdown found 23% said it was placing pressure on their relationships. Counselors urge people to seek help and not let problems fester. Phone-in sessions are very useful and we at the Claire Rabin Institute and the ESRA Counseling Service see a large increase in phone therapy sessions for couples.

The ESRA Counseling Service is now offering support groups to English speakers. Even if one partner attends the six meetings, the couple will be strengthened.


10 Essential Skills for Couples Coping with Stress

*Practice acceptance. Look for an answer to the problem if possible, but realize some problems don't have easy, obvious solutions. Acceptance doesn't mean you like or approve of something. It's simply pausing and noting where you are.

*Stay on the same team. Acknowledge the fact that the situation is stressful, but that neither you nor your partner is to blame. One way to do this, is to make 'I wish' statements. For example, if we're incredibly busy and don't have as much time for each other as we'd like, we both make an effort to say things like, 'I wish I had more time to spend with you. I really miss you,'or 'I wish things were different for you and me right now.'

*Turn the problem into an "It". Rather than turning on each other, focus on the situation as the problem. Simple statements such as 'I'm sorry I'm so sick and can't take care of you better,' can go a long way to making you feel more connected.

*Be comfortable with flexible roles. During times of stress it's helpful to be flexible with everything from who does the chores to who carries the emotional load.

*Show tolerance to differences in each other's reactions. Not everyone reacts to stress in the same way, and no one way is right or wrong. For example, Greg is more likely to zone out watching sports and I'm more likely to have a good cry.

*Laugh when you can. Nurturing your sense of humor can be another great asset in learning to embrace the ups and downs. Try saying something out of character to shake things up a bit.

*Make a survival plan. Figure out what really needs to be done, and what can wait until things get back to normal. Try to reduce both your loads in whatever ways you can. Perfectionists have a specially hard time. The less one partner helps out the more the other will suffer. Make sure that both you and your partner are eating and sleeping as well as you can. And keep your expectations realistic. Sometimes simply making it through the day can be a big accomplishment for couples going through a stressful time.

*Find even small ways to stay connected. If you're going through difficult times, feel drained, and don't have much energy to care for your relationship, at least look for ways to stay connected. For example, small acts of affection are helpful.

*Practice compassion. Realize that both you and your partner are doing the very best you can at this precise moment.

*Experts recommend that couples dig into where their disagreements over risk stem from and make room for the other's point of view.

*The relationship troubles begin when one partner shuts out the other from their inner world. It's destructive to the relationship, but it's seldom done intentionally. It's a dysfunctional way of coping that expresses itself in various behaviors. Some couples keep their conversations on an intellectual level, and avoid talking about what's in their hearts. Others use harsh words or silence to keep each other out.

When individuals and couples discover functional ways of coping with stress, they can restore emotional closeness, renew intimacy, and revive romance.

Take turns answering the following questions:

● In what ways has stress been affecting your emotions?

● What are you doing that helps you cope with your stress?

● What ways of coping with stress are having a positive effect on your relationship?

● What ways are having a negative effect?

● What actions would you like to take to cope with and reduce stress in the future?

Listen intently to your partner's responses. When your partner is done talking, reflect back in your own words what you heard him/her say and is going through. Wouldn't it be great to come through all this with a better relationship than before?

Claire Rabin is a Professor Emeritus Tel Aviv University, School of Social Work 

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Wednesday, 23 September 2020

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