“I love Jedd, but we are always together these days. We avoid friends for fear someone will get sick. We love each other, but too much of a good thing is too much."
Marnie sat on the black leather couch in my Stone Harbor office and looked at me expectantly. “Well, what do we do?” She sounded worried and impatient.
“Clearly," I began, "you and Jedd love each other, but you have no choice but to spend hour after hour with each other day after day and night after night."
Constant coupling during an emergency helps us feel less lonely, and the pandemic is frightening for everyone. In this unimaginable event, sharing childcare and meals reduces the confusion of a new kind of daily life, but dangerous circumstances elicit our survival responses of fight, flight and freeze, making it difficult to get along with one another.
Your partner may be quick to anger, escape to hours of texting, or seem unable to care for kids who need parental support. Understanding how to get some distance and reconnect can help both of you cope with inevitable tension, between you and with other family members.
Disruption of dependence/independence. An emergency makes it hard to balance the dependence and independence between you.
If your jobs were put on hold or moved online, you have suffered the loss of economic security. Work brings us interaction with a world outside our families, which fosters self-esteem and intellectual stimulation that can enhance couple relationships at home, and if you are an essential worker in this pandemic, the necessity of putting yourself in harm’s way to respond to the unfathomable impact of COVID-19 has likely taken a toll on your sense of safety.
Although you may be proud of what you or your loved one is doing to save lives, your natural concern about the danger of catching the virus is worrisome, and a day battling existential anxiety takes its toll in feeling safe at home.
Three antidotes help mitigate stress we experience during an extended crisis:
1. Deep Breathing: We can reduce the fight/flight response and restore calmness if we breathe deeply and exhale much more slowly than we inhale breath. For the kids we want to calm down, we can offer them the fun of blowing bubbles, which slows down and deepens breathing delightfully.
2. Time for Compassion: Self-compassion is essential in successful living. This powerful self-regulating tool reduces ruminating and self-criticism. Offer yourself the compassion you would give someone else in your circumstances.
In mindful self-compassion, Drs. Garner and Neff suggest starting with a deep breath to reset reactivity, following this by taking a moment to ask yourself, “What am I feeling?”
In response to possible your likely feelings of “fear, inadequacy, or self-loathing,” you remind yourself that this is normal. After all, most people would feel this way in my situation. This awareness connects you with others and allows you to remind yourself that you are doing the best you can at this time. If you can then allow yourself to feel appreciative of your ability to cope, you empower yourself and build resilience to stress.
3. The Power of Touch: The survival responses all reflect an imbalance in the face of danger, but the power of touch reduces stress by tapping into the calm of our parasympathetic nervous system. The touch of a hand or the squeeze of a shoulder allows us to release oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain, called the “cuddle chemical." Hugging and kissing each other, kids and pets create emotional lifelines during a crisis.
To Consider: Cherish at least 10 minutes together enjoying a daily ritual, like a cup of coffee or a late-night snack. These simple pastimes tell us how much we matter to each other by reminding us that, “I will make time for you because I love you." Insert a daily dose of intimate time to maintain your bond at a time when nothing is certain but the time you have together now.
To Explore: Some websites offer online courses you can take together during these stressful months. I will have a course on couples communication on my website soon.
ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.