This is a fearful and uncertain time for all of us, and as Bassel Van Der Kolk (world renowned trauma therapist) mentioned in one of his interviews this week that what we are experiencing is a form of ‘trauma’. In the case of COVID-19, we’ve been instructed to practice social distancing and self-isolation which means loss of agency and control in an environment that is uncertain and unpredictable which is exactly what a person going through a traumatic experience would feel.
Many of my couples are anxious and uncertain about getting through this time without damaging an already stressed relationship. Very real financial, health, work challenges are facing many families and many others are experiencing various level of ‘trauma’ activation as mentioned. While this global crisis is challenging everyone’s lives in profound ways, there are opportunities to create connection and strength as a couple. Creating a strategy to get through this period as a team is critical to protecting the health of your relationship long past COVID-19.
My teacher Stan Tatkin, creator of PACT, highlights the need for couples to create a couple bubble. In this bubble, the need of the relationship is prioritised and maintained so that each member feels nourished and protected against external stressors. The current environment is one of these stressors that pressing on the Couple Bubble. There is so much stress on everyone around us right now that our homes and our families need more than ever to be places of refuge. At the same time, too much togetherness isn’t always the ideal. So, how do you balance the opportunity for togetherness against the stress of cabin fever and to ensure we minimise the potential of trauma activations.
Here are some questions to get you started:
- Does your partner have health challenges that requires special care during this time?
- Is your partner someone who needs connection to relieve stress?
- Does physical touch help them relax and connect?
- Or, do they need quiet and alone time?
With this in mind, you can develop a plan together to help support the relationship through this period. While you focus your attention on hearing what your partner says, break this plan into categories:
What time of day is your partner most productive and engaged? How can you arrange your work time, parenting time and housework time to help them feel most productive and energised? Are there times when they need quiet or resting time and how can you manage it?
Talking about this in terms of your partner’s needs – rather than your own – helps your partner feel supported and will promote their focus on reciprocating this experience.
Can you create space in your home for the different activities that will keep you both sane? Can you creatively make room for each of you (and your children) to work, rest and play in order to lessen the feeling of confinement during this time? Helping your partner to decompress on their own will create room for their nervous systems to recharge.
For example, the living room couch can be for couple time, whether snuggling, talking together or enjoying a TV show, while the dining table is for work, homework, and family time. No matter the size or layout of your home, you can work together to create and protect these spaces. Children will follow your lead, especially when you are working together.
Setting goals that are not work and school related would allow for connection and prevent chaos and boredom as a couple and a family. Engage in some creative endeavours you’ve been putting off or not proactively engaging in, ie. boardgames, drawing, gardening, working out together, learning a musical instrument, cooking etc.
All of this would help to inject some novelty and connection at a time when our stress hormones are running the show.
Taking Care for the long term
Working through these challenges at the start of the quarantine will help focus your attention on taking care of one another. It will help to develop a system that will best support your relationship and your family. Being proactive will prepare you for problems before they come up and keep them manageable as well as help to regulate our nervous system so we are not flooded when stressful events happen.