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Cooped Up With Your Partner And It’s Not Going Too Well…?!

First of all, I highly recommend you all to read Nick Lange’s, LLPC, LLMFT blog post regarding strengthening your relationship during this COVID-19 health crisis. We should be focusing on our relationship more than just now, but during this time, it is a great opportunity to do that! Check out the link on our website at wefixbrains.com/grandrapids.

Secondly, chances are that things are going to be bumpy between you and your partner while you’re forced to spend time together. And by time, I mean all day long 24/7 and then add at least three more weeks to that (at this point, but it may be longer!), and if you’re like me and my husband, you’re both trying to balance childcare (including teaching), pet care, household chores, all while still working full time. Oh, and we’re trying to be husband and wife to each other, too (Ain’t it interesting that we often put our intimate relationship roles last?!)

It is completely normal for conflict to increase between you and your partner during this health crisis. It’s a big change away from your normal. You can’t go out to eat. You can’t go to the movies. You can’t really go shopping together. You can’t spend time with your extended family, neighbors, and friends, or even your co-workers. You really only have each other during this time. But know that you are not alone. Many couples are experiencing the same things you and your partner are.

What is going on in your brain? 

Feel that your tolerance has been much shorter lately with your partner? This is also normal and due to the increased feelings of anxiety that you’re experiencing. Let me help you understand a little what goes on in your brain when your anxiety increases… 

When we experience anxiety (or it increases), the backside of our brain can take over most of the brain’s functioning, as this is the alert center of our brain. When we are stressed, this part of the brain takes over to engage us in survival mode. This is our natural way to survive that our brain does very well and has done so for thousands of years (which is why humans are still here). But our brain does it so well sometimes that it does it when it doesn’t always need to, like during a disagreement with your partner that turns into a screaming match OR someone storming out of the room OR conflict that does both.

During this time, our prefrontal cortex (the front area of the brain) detaches in a way and limits its functioning. The prefrontal cortex is the logical, problem solving skilled area of the brain. Our back brain triggers us that “danger” is near and often goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

Remember your fuse being shorter? Your brain (back brain) is being more reactive due to the higher anxiety. Now apply that to your current relationship with your partner. What does it look like?… You’re probably snippy much more at your partner. Maybe you’re feeling more annoyed, or even trapped. Maybe things are turning more into screaming matches like previously mentioned or maybe one of you is quick to leave an argument.

Things are tense between us. How can I manage my relationship?

Here are some things that can be helpful to focus on if things are too much between you and your partner right now… because it doesn’t look like we are able to break free of this shelter in place order any time soon.

Increase your self-awareness. 

This is something that I highly encourage my clients to practice. You can’t create change within yourself if you don’t know what to change. Taking it a step further, if you’re not aware of what you’re feeling and not communicating that with your partner, chances are that your behavior is much more reactive (it’s okay, we have all been there!). No one has really been in this situation before, including your partner. Try to be mindful of this! Try to be aware of the language you use with your partner. Using those “always” and “never” statements can be a trigger for others when you’re trying to communicate to others. Try to be mindful of what you’re able to tolerate yourself as well as being mindful of what your partner can tolerate during this crisis.

  • Slow down. This is a great way to assist with increasing your self-awareness. Taking a step back in the moment can be very difficult, it takes a few (sometimes more!) tries to know when to slow down to prevent things from being heated between you and your partner. If you can practice slowing down for yourself, then you can apply that skill to moments with your partner. A huge way that you can slow down is by taking those deep breaths. Remember how your brain functions during anxiety? Well taking deep breaths keeps the prefrontal cortex functioning. So if things are tense when you’re communicating with your partner, take some deep breaths before, during, and after those interactions. This will help your solid thinking brain to stay intact, in which you can be less reactive. 
  • Focus on what you can control. You can’t change what your partner does or doesn’t do. That is literally reality, and it is difficult for us to accept that at times. But you can manage your reaction and response to it. Put a little energy into yourself but for your relationship.
  • Identify your own emotions. This ties into slowing down and increasing your self-awareness. Let me tell you… I am one to go from 0 to 60 in .5 seconds if the timing is just right. Ask my husband. He knows. BUT the times that I am able to identify what I am feeling before I approach my husband to communicate with him, things usually go way smoother. For example, I do most of the cooking in the house, so when my husband utilizes groceries that I planned for a meal later in the week, I can feel annoyed or angry. Knowing I feel that way, I coach myself through that feeling by literally talking to myself, “Okay, I am feeling annoyed (insert deep breath) but I don’t want to fight. Maybe he didn’t know what I had planned.” Everyone is different. But I encourage you to identify what feeling is coming up for you and how your body is reacting to it (a form of mindfulness which usually allows the feeling to pass easier). Pinpointing what your body is doing (increased heart rate, heavy breathing, flushed face, etc. for whatever emotion it is) increases your self-awareness and usually allows that feeling to pass a little easier. 
  • Allow yourselves redos. If you’re often snippy and not liking that version of yourself, it will take a little bit of time to change it. That is okay! For instance, if you’re trying your best to communicate something in a nicer way with your partner and you feel yourself getting upset or heated, let your partner know! “Hold on, I don’t think I’m communicating very well. Let me try again.” or “Let me do a redo.” Let your partner know what you’re wanting to work on for yourself and what you want to change. If they are aware, and you’re asking for a redo, then they will be much more understanding and patient.

Listen to your partner.

How often do you truly listen to your partner when they are sharing with you? How about during conflict? I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Yeah I listen to them!” But there is a huge difference between hearing what they said and listening to them. Let me ask you a different question that will provide some clarification. How many times do you listen to your partner WITHOUT thinking about how you’re going to respond or what you will say next? Listening to your partner means being fully present with your partner while he or she is sharing without thinking about how you will respond or what you will say. Don’t think about what you’re going to say to them, or how you will defend yourself, or how you’re going to blame them for something else. If you’re doing any of these things, you’re NOT listening to your partner. If you think anything during these moments, it should be “I am full here for my partner right now,” “I want to understand you,” and “I am listening and I will validate your feelings.” After telling yourself this and listening to your partner, you should then ASK if there is anything they need from you. I can’t tell you how many times we try to solve problems for others and give advice when all someone may need is for you to listen to them… Just ask my husband!

  • Communicate respectively. Did you notice how I listed “listen to your partner” before communicating with your partner? This is because it is very important to listen to your partner rather than only focusing on what you’re communicating. Some would argue that listening is a much more useful tool than communicating when it comes to relationship work. When someone is feeling irritable, they are often quick to attack whoever is around them. I know that I get heated pretty quickly at times and feel terrible afterwards. So in those moments, I let my husband know what’s going on with me, like “Hey, I’m having an off day. I’m sorry I’m so snappy at you. I’ll try to work on that.” Let your partner know what is going on with you. If your partner is doing something that has been bothering you, focus on the actual behavior instead of your partner. This can look like “Hey, I feel annoyed when you eat the food that I was going to use to make us a meal this week. I know you were probably unaware, and that’s okay. But can you check with me first? And I’ll do better at trying to let you know what I’m planning.” Doesn’t that sound so much better than “Really?! You used all the rice again?! I had planned to use that for dinner for us later this week. You always do that! I can’t stand it!”?
  • Take responsibility. This is similar to Dr. John Gottman’s work with antidotes to the four horsemen. Taking responsibility for being part of the problem is probably something we can ALL work on. It is very easy for us to throw up those defensive walls when our partner is letting us know something about ourselves that isn’t exactly what we want to hear. Imagine if you practiced listening when your partner did this, was fully present, and put all of your own stuff aside during it. Because in those uncomfortable moments, it’s about our partner and being there for them, even if they are shining light on something we may have done that didn’t please them. It’s about your partner and being there for them. Not about throwing a jab in or attacking back. What good does that do for your relationship?! If our partner shares something that brings up negative feelings for us, we often want them to feel the exact same way. So we attack back. Practice giving in instead.

Needing extra help?!

You can still reach out for assistance during this time! Just because you’re cooped up, doesn’t mean that you can’t learn the extra skills and connect with a therapist to guide you. Our office is still accepting new clients with immediate availability. Most therapists are able to offer telehealth sessions so you can connect with a professional within your own home, which is the safest way for all of us right now! Give us a call or check us out online at wefixbrains.com

It is difficult to be quarantined with someone else. Please know that if you are in an abusive relationship, there are still many resources to connect you to safe places, even during this time. You are not alone. You can reach out to the National Domestic Violence Helpline at 1-800-799-7233. Also, please be aware that computer usage can be monitored and is impossible to completely clear. If you are afraid your internet usage might be monitored and need assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at the number listed above.

 

About the author:

Rosann Raftery is a counselor in Grand Rapids Ada MIRosann Raftery is a Limited Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LLMFT) and LLLPC living in Grand Rapids, MI. She specializes in working with couples and families to assist them in building their communication skills, healing, and strengthening their relationships. She is available for Marriage CounselingFamily CounselingPre-Marital CounselingDivorce Recovery, and more. For more on Rosanne, read her full bio.

 

 

 

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Mental health services update:

At a time when mental health services are more important than ever, Lifeologie Counseling Grand Rapids is offering remote therapy, remote group and mini-sessions, and free 15 minute sessions for front-line workers.