Sheltering at home with our partner 24 hours a day, seven days a week, will undoubtedly bring up issues that had been bubbling under the surface and cause them to boil over. This is good news, as couples now have plenty of opportunities to hash out issues they may have been avoiding, but bad news because they have to hash out those issues under pressure-cooker conditions. One common theme I’ve found with all the couples in my practice is the issue of differentiation.
Differentiation involves balancing two fundamental needs: the need to be your authentic, autonomous self and the need for intimacy with another. When these two life forces for autonomy and connection are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship. When unhealthy, partners feel they have to give up their individuality to be together. This is a marker of co-dependency. Sheltering at home with your partner might be illuminating the ways that your partnership is co-dependent instead of interdependent.
Being a therapist doesn’t make me immune to marital conflict, but implementing tools to manage my differences with John and allow us to still stay connected definitely helps. Here are some of the tools I use and teach couples to support an interdependent relationship.
Blame creates Shame.
Let’s admit none of us know how to deal with the Pandemic correctly, and we will all act out. Acting out in the form of blaming is very common. Using ‘you’ statements to describe your feelings and needs is a way of blaming your partner. Using ‘I’ statements is a way to practice being vulnerable and in touch with yourself, and give your partner an opportunity to meet your needs. For example, “You’re not helping me enough with homeschooling.” Even if this is true, the blaming undertone evokes feelings of shame in your partner and cause them to feel accused, angry, and then withdraw.
- Be vulnerable and clearly state what you’re longing for (using ‘I’ statements) so your partner can give you what you need.
- “I feel __________ when __________ happens, and I need _____________.”
Validate with Words & Actions.
If you can’t hear each other, you can’t love each other. It’s essential to listen to each other’s different emotions and personal perspectives, and validate them with both your words AND with your actions. Taking action demonstrates to your partner that you have empathy. Understanding your partner’s perspective is different than pleasing them to avoid a fight.
- “I hear you’re feeling and that really makes sense to me. I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. Would it help if I did __________?”
- “I hear you’re feeling __________, but maybe I missed something. I’m not quite understanding why you’re feeling this way. Can you tell me more so I can figure out to help?”
Criticism Kills Connection.
Even though you are physically together all the time right now, you might feel emotionally distant at times. That’s okay and normal. Some partners cannot tolerate feeling emotionally separate and will use criticism as a dysfunctional way to get their partner’s attention with the hope of feeling connected, even if the connection is negative. But criticism is a sure way to make your partner feel defensive and it reinforces the emotional disconnection.
- Remind yourself that just because you do not agree, resonate, or feel connected to your partner 24 hours a day does not mean they don’t love you.
- A more effective way to maintain a connection with them is to become an expert in your partner’s strengths, not their weaknesses. Express appreciation to them for making coffee, even if it’s for the 500th time.
Softer exchanges send signals to each other that evoke kinder responses and deepen intimacy.
You Can Be Separate, Yet Connected.
Everyone is feeling anxiety right now and anxiety is infectious. I often tell my patients, “Don’t catch your partner’s mood like a cold.” If your partner is experiencing anxiety, you need to be the one to remain calm, so you both can stay in connection, which helps the anxious partner calm down. By doing this, you use your separate sense of self to regulate your partner’s emotions.
Sheltering at home also means we’re lacking sufficient time alone, and this can produce conflict. Conflicts cannot be managed when emotions are escalated. Establish the rule of calling timeouts if you’re at your breaking point. Timeouts to cool down should be at least 20 minutes and no more than 24 hours. Ruptures happen in all relationships, but resolving them is required, or else resentments will build over time that will surely contribute to the breakdown of the relationship.
- “I feel __________, and I need to call a timeout right now to cool off. Let’s pick this back up at ____ (time).”
Physical Touch Soothes.
Whether you are at the beginning of a steamy new relationship or 20 years into a partnership, keep in mind that physical touch calms our nervous system. In his book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch uses the technique of ‘Hugging till Relaxed.’ You can do this standing up or lying down. You can also try holding hands or locking arms when you go for walks, or cuddling each other when you watch TV.
The burden of this Pandemic may be highlighting intimacy issues that previously existed in your relationship. Though it feels hard, this is actually a good thing because it gives you an opportunity to grow stronger and closer together. Remind yourself that intimate relationships are challenging. Have compassion for yourself and your partner right now. Emotional, mental, and physical health is your wealth!
Want more ideas? Check out this list of Ten Tools to Cultivate Intimacy.