Lockdown has affected us all in so many ways. Relationships worldwide have been put under stresses and strains, many of which have not been seen before.
In the following article, the Marshall Method Therapy Team explore what “the new normal” might look like for couples, and how to tackle the common problems faced.
Should you need more help, we are experienced Skype/Zoom counsellors, able to provide couples therapy via online video sessions.
You’ve played all the boardgames Amazon Prime has to offer, you’ve achieved some sort of painful work/childcare compromise, you’ve come to terms with the total inadequacy of Happy Hour via Zoom – and we are willing to bet that that marriage of yours now looks completely different than it did pre-pandemic.
Our online counselling team has been working hard with many couples who have sought relationship help (or who have continued with their therapy) during the pandemic.
Some have taken regular respite in whatever hotel rooms they could manage to book. Others have used lockdown as a “laboratory” in which to study more intensively how the changes they’ve made have affected things.
All of them, like all of us, have faced up to loss and the challenge of redefining the entirety of our daily life at a moment’s notice.
Now the world is staggering back to a strange and often unsafe-feeling version of ‘normal’ – how will our relationships, in many cases under heavy strain, hold up?
Wherever you live in the world, there will continue to be some sort of limit on your movements and your social contact. These limits will change regularly, and you will have to keep up.
You will have to keep adjusting, and re-familiarising yourself with what “safe” even means. You will have to weigh up the mental health of yourself and your children against the wellbeing of vulnerable adults in our family and community.
You and your partner will remain fairly likely to face either ill health or the loss of work, if you haven’t already. Childcare has already disappeared for most people, and the summer holidays mean respite is a long way off.
Inevitably, both of you at different points will continue to feel vulnerable, frightened and sad. The daily news will arguably fuel these negative emotions and likely remain a potent source of anxiety.
With so many places we love to go to recharge and relax still locked down or feeling dangerous, ‘fun’ may continue to be hard work rather than spontaneous or natural.
How you respond to this will depend on your situation – if your relationship is relatively strong, you will need to use your best communication tools to hear one another and try to offer support.
Here are some of my team’s best tips:
Under lockdown we have most of us learnt something about slowing down and living in the moment, no matter how insanely stressful it has all been. It might be the smell of your own freshly baked bread, or putting your baby to sleep, or watching the change of seasons more closely than ever before.
Don’t forget those skills as you go back to work, confront an impossible new school timetable or deal with changes in your employment situation.
And please don’t forget to bring your new mindful appreciation to your relationship – a surprise cup of coffee, a massage, an invitation to sit and have a glass of wine on the front step – creating these moments together is one way to escape the pressure.
“Don’t neglect to seize the day - if you don’t want to go back to the old way of doing things, and you can see a different way, hold onto that. Talk about it together during these long hours, and do your research.”
On the one hand, we’ve had less freedom than ever before. On the other, much of what’s familiar has been completely upended, and many of us may have the chance to redefine everything.
This will likely be painful for some of us – it’s hard to see losing your job, for example, as a great chance to redefine yourself – but there will be change, and for some, this may well be a chance to make things better.
Jobs that absolutely needed a stressful full-time commute can suddenly be done quite straightforwardly from home. Families living in expensive and inadequate city apartments may be able to escape to greener pastures.
The changes we want to hold onto don’t necessarily have to be huge, either. We’ve spoken to couples who have treasured their family’s newfound freedom from an overloaded and stressful schedule.
If you feel like this, make sure you don’t return to weekends spent driving the children to an unreasonable load of activities, whilst radically shortchanging everyone on slow, relaxed quality time together. Hold onto the family quizzes, the board games, the reading hours, the lockdown family bands.
The domestic status quo has also been challenged and upended as families have been thrown together 24/7 – witness the Japanese husband who thought he’d been doing about the same amount of work as his wife (both worked full-time), and under lockdown discovered that he did 21 daily tasks compared to her 210. It seems reasonable to hope that the pandemic has given the cause of fairer division of home labour a large shove in the right direction.
Most married people, especially the ones with young families, already knew that the ‘old normal’ didn’t always work that well for them. Compromises and sacrifices were often made because there didn’t seem to be other options, rather than because we thought they were worth it. We soldiered on without many moments to even stop and think about whether things were working all that well for us.
Now, here we are with a unique and in most ways horrible historical moment, but one where flexibility and creativity may be more possible, for some of us at least. Don’t neglect to seize the day – if you don’t want to go back to the old way of doing things, and you can see a different way, hold onto that. Talk about it together during these long hours, and do your research. Keep journals individually – this is the perfect way to come to understand your own state of being.
Andrew's Relationship Toolkit
What happens when the kids go back to school and eventually, you and your partner do have the freedom to be apart? A slow, sustained breath out; the relief of tremendous built-up pressure.
Expect to be flooded with all kinds of emotions – sadness, fear, anger, regret; as well as relief and excitement. You will most likely have been in crisis mode for months, working all hours to run everything from your kitchen. There will be a lot of unprocessed emotion, much of it relating to your marriage.
Pre-pandemic life gave us commutes, work nights out and cafe dates with friends. All of those were great for distance and perspective. The healthiest relationships we as counsellors see are usually those where both partners have strong friendships – during the pandemic, we all pretty much had to give those up (digital chats just aren’t the same, no matter how valuable they’ve been in keeping us sane).
How can you prepare for this release of pent-up emotion?
It takes a village to raise a child, and most marriages are rooted in some sort of “village” too, whether that’s friends, family or institutions like school or church. Yet for lots of us, this all-important backdrop to our marriage has totally transformed.
Think about it – you may not have seen your school gate friends or your sister for three months. Your kids’ teachers or carers have disappeared from your life, meaning the loss of some of your main partners in raising them.
Meanwhile, you’re maybe doing the shopping for an older neighbour you’d never spoken to before. Oh, and you’ve been in regular digital touch with friends who moved abroad years ago, just because the pandemic made you anxious about the folks you care about deeply but don’t see.
If the backdrop changes, the marriage will too. Perhaps some questionable sources of well-meaning advice have gone and aren’t too much missed. On the other hand, weekly chats with your best friend over coffee and cake might have been a nurturing ritual that helped you bring your best self to your relationship. Without them, you’re getting tetchier and less forgiving.
All of this should lead us to ask ourselves some questions:
“Reach out, create an hour once a week where you can check in and explore your feelings about the relationship and living together.”
Sadly, plenty of couples out there found themselves lurching from a marriage crisis into a global health crisis. Having discovered infidelity, or got to the point where the marriage had been recognised as loveless, the two partners were then forced to live in the closest possible proximity.
We have seen some who thought it was all over finding points of reconnection during this suspension of normal life. Equally, we have seen others for whom the hell they anticipated very much turned out to be the reality.
Where infidelity was involved, lockdown at home meant furtive and painful smartphone communication with affair partners, or worse, sneaking out for unsafe meetings. Unfaithful partners, already likely to feel trapped by their own poor choices, ended up actually being very much trapped.
The success rate for honest, productive conversations between unfaithful and betrayed partners has been pretty low. Those who were seeing the start of some slow, painful progress pre-pandemic have in many cases seen things stall.
Unfortunately, whatever the mess your troubled marriage might be in, practical action to change things will continue to be highly complicated. Job losses, financial problems, the difficulty of completing the legalities in whatever phase of lockdown applies, the lack of normal childcare, even the risks of going out to look at rental properties add up to a tough situation.
What should you do? Well, it may seem obvious coming from us, but talking to a counsellor might just be what gets you both through. Whether it’s working towards the self-knowledge needed for a healthy separation; helping with some communication/coping skills to live together around a painful betrayal; or working towards reconciliation, you are certainly going to need help. Reach out, create an hour once a week where you can check in and explore your feelings about the relationship and living together.
It sometimes feels like everything will be different once this ends, and our relationships are no exception. Rather than looking for trite silver linings, think deeply about what you’ve lived through.
You’ve almost certainly learnt things about your partner you wouldn’t have otherwise. You’ve been there for one another on an epic scale, no matter how imperfect that was. And you’ve had an historically unique chance to look at how your marriage functioned – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Whatever happens, 2020 will have shaped your relationship profoundly.
We believe that relationships run into problems because of poor communication but that good relationship skills can be taught.
We concentrate more on solving current problems than understanding what went wrong. Our approach is solutions-focused.
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