As we are making steps towards what resembles a normal existence: lockdowns and border closures are almost in the rear vision mirror. Restaurants, theatres, art galleries and theme parks have reopened. Australians as a whole have been remarkable in the way we have responded to the pandemic. Never before have mental health support services been so overwhelmed with individuals, couples and families seeking assistance for stress, anxiety, depression and relationship issues.
A variety of experts such as Gottman, Johnson, and Tatkin, say one of the most common conflict cycles in relationships is the pursuer-distancer dynamic. In other words, if one partner becomes frustrated, agitated or (in extreme cases) aggressive - the other partner's reaction may be to become increasingly defensive and/or physically distant. This includes leaving the room, house, or neighbourhood.
Dr John Gottman says, “More relationships die by ice than by fire.” What does he mean? Through Gottman’s research, he found that couples who stopped talking together, who were ‘too busy’ to make time for each other, or who simply ‘got on with the everyday business of life’, ended up emotionally disconnected from each other.
What a tremendous opportunity we are presented with as we take time to rest and gather with friends and family and to make meaning of the year just past. What we believed to be important and took for granted in the beginning of the year radically changed in March. Unquestionably, 2020 was a struggle for many people, families and relationships and, through necessity, 2020 allowed us to strip back our deeply held values and priorities in life (for some it seemed to be toilet paper)! Priorities like safety, security, health, connection, time together, appreciation and gratefulness emerged as repeated themes.
Well, how to describe this year without using words like unprecedented, lockdowns, COVID 19, pandemic, strain, and stress. Ok, so I don’t think it is possible. 2020 has been a beast of year that has drained our resources on all levels. Families and friends separated from each other, support networks and activities reduced or reconfigured for much of the population at different times throughout the year. Jobs ] lost, the economy dipped into recession for the first time in 30 years, and many people have used their superfunds to stay afloat. People are seeking support of psychological and relationship services in numbers never seen before. Co-existing with this, 2020 has created opportunities to build resilience and adjust our lives and to reflect on what is important, what we want more of, less of and what we want to change.
Words like ‘change’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘crazy’, have been thrown around daily in our lives over the past 7 months. COVID, shut-down, quarantine, isolation have become conditions we have had to learn to live with. They have all become associated with negative feelings, fear, hopelessness, and most of us feel like we are in a constant state of survival. This is a very hard way to live and yet we are managing it. The conditions that have led to this state of affairs have changed irrevocably how we will live in the future - greater awareness on hygiene, social distancing, management of viral illness both at a macro and micro level. On top of that, we are also aware that trying to go back to our old ways leads to community relapse and results in a re-emergence of infections, loss and distress.
These same conditions can be found when we take a look at relationships that begin to struggle.
Love can bring with it an intoxicating and powerful mix of emotions and chemicals that change a person’s perspectives, thinking, and feelings instantaneously. Love can turn people into writers and poets and into gentler, more empathetic, and attentive versions of themselves, but as we know, love doesn’t always work. We are all too familiar with the frequent stories of failed love, people reporting the honeymoon suddenly ending, and noticing all the annoying habits of the other. With conflict escalating the relationship soon falls apart.
Can current research shed light on what is happens to love?
By now you have mastered hand-washing, social distancing and staying at home as much as possible and even though it’s only been a few weeks my guess is it already feels endless. Uncertainty is a nerve wracking state to live in, even for a short time. So many questions, so few answers. This situation, on top of the increased intensity of living more closely together for more prolonged periods with our loved ones can feel overwhelming and put more pressure on our relationships.
The COVID-19 pandemic impact is unprecedented. Our country, our planet has never experienced such a widespread contraction of an infectious condition since the Spanish Flu in 1918. Everyday information is coming to light about the rate of infections, globally and locally new restriction are enforced, borders are closing down, the movement of people limited, gatherings large and now small are outlawed, some industries such as tourism and hospitality have been decimated, supermarket shelves are being emptied as fast as they are filled, with media coverage reporting panic buying and fear.
I was recently having a conversation with a couple about what brought them to therapy. Pat was saying, “I don’t really know. I know it was my idea to come, but now that we are here I don’t quite know how to explain it. I just feel, I don’t know, like stunted or something.”
On further exploration, what Pat was saying was that while their relationship seemed, on the surface, to be successful, there was something missing – a sense of individuality, a sense of personal growth, personal achievement and a sense of thriving.
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