Relationship Institute Australasia

Counselling and
Professional Training.

22 March 2020

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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.

To suggest this is an uncertain and stressful time for all of us is indeed an understatement, and the impact on relationships and marriages can be significant as we attempt to navigate through this rolling crisis.   Currently there is no vaccine for COVID-19 and the most optimistic prediction for one is at least 12 months away. However, there are antidotes to inoculate your relationships from the fear, anxiety and stress, ensuring you can weather these turbulent and stress provoking times. This article will provide sensible and practical advice about how your relationship can ride out this global crisis and remain intact, connected and strong.

  1. We live in a 24/7 news and media cycle, there is no off button for the media in the ongoing reporting of COVID-19. We understand that it is important and compelling viewing and essential to keep informed of the nature and changes of this pandemic. We are also aware that the continuous viewing of 24/7 news can become obsessive and increase levels of fear, stress and anxiety. Overviewing the news can feel like a way of staying in control, however, hours of negative and fear-based reporting will often provoke a strong fear and anxiety response in yourself. Humans are hardwired for self-preservation and this ongoing information taps straight into the fear centre of the brain. It is important to find your off switch when it come to viewing the media regarding COVID-19. By all means keep informed but limit your consumption during the days and weeks to follow. Talk to your partner about what a healthy viewing level would be; it is different for everybody but when you notice an increase in fear and anxiety in you when watching the news it’s a pretty good sign to limit your viewing.

 

  1. Consciously and deliberately managing stress and anxiety in yourself and within the relationship during this time is vital. When we start to feel an increase in stress and anxiety a diffuse range of physiological and neurological changes occur such as:
  • The heart beats faster and blood flows faster increasing blood pressure
  • Blood flow is redirected to vascular beds necessary for fighting or fleeing
  • Stress hormones were released such as adrenalin and cortisol
  • The frontal lobe of the brain is deactivated, and the amygdala is activated
  • The breath becomes faster and shallower
  • You have trouble in processing incoming information, meaning your capacity to listen and understand their partner is significant impeded
  • It is hard to either give or receive affection and to remember positive attributes in others
  • You do not want to be touched, and in many cases, it is even impossible to be polite and gentle with people you care for
  • You get tunnel vision and your perception becomes distorted so that everything seems dangerous, even your partner becomes the enemy, everything said by one’s partner seems like an attack.

A solution to heightened stress response is learning to self soothe. The practice of soothing can take many forms. Maybe you go for a long walk, listen to music, or read a magazine. You might also try deep breathing exercises. Getting control of your breathing is an ideal way to release tension and achieve a relaxed state of mind. When your brain is only trained to see danger, you’re more likely to attack or get defensive. Learning to soothe opens the door to empathy, positivity, and creativity.

Importantly knowing what you can and can’t control in this time is critical. You can’t problem solve problems that are not in your hands, that are outside your influence and continual thinking or ruminating on this problem only increases anxiety. Take comfort in knowing that we are all in this together, that you are not alone and that serious minds throughout this planet are working day and night to reduce this impact of this pandemic. There remain many things in your control that you can act on such as keeping up to date with the recommendations from health authorities such as washing your hands more often and correctly, not touching your face, social distancing and working from home.

  1. The increase in stress during this time is indeed inevitable and we don’t know how long this crisis will last, nor can we forecast the financial , economic and social costs to us and our community. Being able to manage this external stressor created by COVID-19 in your relationship is the antidote to preventing the external stressors from seeping into your relationship and family creating tension, conflict and disconnection. Research conducted by John Gottman demonstrated that couples who were able to effectively de-stress together reported feeling closer to and more supported by their partners. It is a great daily ritual that builds and strengthens connection between couples.

The Stress Reducing Conversation is a daily 20-30 minute conversation you have with your partner to take turns telling each other about the stress you are under, the things you worry about e.g., concerns about the unfolding pandemic. Each partner gets to be the speaker for 10-15 minutes, while the other is the listener.

It is important not to give advice or try to problem solve as this can inadvertently suggest to the speaker that you are trivializing or dismissing the problem, understanding must precede advice. Let your partner know that you fully understand and empathize with the dilemma, effectively that they are not alone, and you are on their side. The listener communicates that we are a team and together we get through this. Importantly the listener shows empathy that not only do you hear your partners stressors and concerns but that you understand and validate their emotion as well. It is important that you give you partner your attention without distractions such as mobiles and laptops.

 

  1. With greater restrictions on social movement and gatherings more people will be required to work from home potentially meaning couples are spending significantly more time together habituating the same space. This scenario can lead to further tension and conflict. It is important couples have conversations about their needs when sharing space at home while still required to work and how to stay connected. The following is a list if useful conversations topics:

 

  • How are we similar and different in what we need to focus on for our work tasks during the day?
  • What areas of the house are for work and recreation?
  • Do we have a clock in and off schedule for the day?
  • What is it I need to feel connected with you during this time?
  • How do I raise an issue about sharing space with you without hurting your feelings?
  • What are some rituals of connection that we commit to during this time to stay connected?
  • How do we schedule in fun and relaxation times together?

Sometimes, conflict can turn into a fight or a battle; arguing your position, feeling you are right, and they are wrong, feeling misunderstood and unheard. The more this type of negative conflict occurs, the stauncher you become in the position you hold, the more right you feel and the more wrong you think your partner is. We know that masters of relationships work on understanding and validation first, they buy into this notion of valid subjective reality, meaning that each person has their own perspective, needs and wants in conflict and whilst it may be different to your view it is still valid and deserves to be listened to, understood and validated as important. 

 

These are extraordinary and unprecedent times that we are living in. Tapping into our resilience, hope and our generosity of mind and deed is just so important right now. Sharing our burdens and fears and feeling the compassion from our partners will help, expressing your needs and listening to the needs of other will help, giving yourself permission to switch off from the crisis and enjoy the company of your family and some friends will help. Social distancing does not equal social isolation and we know that this hard and difficult period will pass.

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