Feeling angry and cagey in lockdown with your partner? Here are 5 methods to (resolving) the madness.
You may be familiar with the saying “Don’t poke the bear,” which refers to couples choosing not to provoke a negative response from their partner. And, yet, you find that’s exactly what you and your partner resort to in times of stress. It’s been a couple of months or more since you’ve followed your COVID-19 shelter-in-place guideline, and now you’re feeling angry and on edge. Your relationship has become a minefield of accusations and misunderstandings.
What makes you so wound up? For one, your nervous system is faced with the threat of illness and possible death hovering outside your front door. You may even be serving as caretaker for a partner or someone in your home with COVID-19.
When facing an existential threat like a pandemic, you are less apt to stay in a place of steady reasoning—which resides in the frontal cortex of your brain. Instead, your brain becomes highly aroused and the sympathetic nervous system is activated, preparing you to fight, flee, or freeze. While staying in place provides relief from the coronavirus threat, it also creates a state of restlessness in your body.
You may be noticing any or all of the following annoyances at this time:
- You have been cooped up inside for too long, and your daily walks or bike rides aren’t providing enough relief, or you just can’t get to them all.
- You are tired of looking at the same household faces and responding to the stream of demands from your children or aging parents.
- You are becoming territorial about space and you feel worn out from negotiating who gets to use the desk and the room with a closed door.
- You miss socializing with other people: gatherings with friends and family, and catching up with co-workers.
- The outlets you used for coping with stress in the past (working out at the gym, meeting a friend for lunch, joining members in religious services) are no longer available.
- You’re frazzled from trying to adjust to an abrupt transition where life as you knew it has been turned upside down.
That’s a lot to deal with—but you don’t have to wake up every morning armed for warfare with your partner. Keep in mind that you chose this person as your romantic partner, and you made a commitment to having each other’s back in difficult times. The pandemic is such a time, and it is testing your relationship.
Here are five communication strategies you and your partner can employ to relate to each other, armed with love:
Communicate Within the Zone
When both partners do their best to stay calm and alert, they can discuss anything. This nervous system arousal zone, identified by Dr. Daniel Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is called the Window of Tolerance. Within this zone, you are able to receive, process, and integrate what your partner is communicating to you, and you are less likely to feel overwhelmed or withdrawn.
Within the Window of Tolerance, be sure you are face to face and eye to eye with your partner. Since your eyes are part of your brain and your reptilian brain is constantly scanning to determine if the person in front of you is friend or foe, looking at your partner allows you to see each other’s internal emotional state and provides an opportunity to soothe and regulate your partner when tension builds.
As you talk about your what stresses you, be aware of your facial expressions. Rather than staring down at your partner, you are likely to be more receptive toward them when their face and eyes indicate friendliness. A welcoming face signals to the brain that you can relax in your partner’s presence.
In spite of your best attempts to stay in the zone, you or your partner may go off on a tangent and create flare-ups within your conversation. Flare-ups are often accompanied by pointed fingers and raised voices. One or both of you are out of the Window of Tolerance and ramping up quickly.
A full-blown argument can be prevented by a quick intervention toward self-soothing or calming one’s partner. Examples of self-soothing in the moment include: drinking something warm and calming like chamomile tea; deepening and slowing down your breath; standing up and taking a stretch; or using your senses to focus on something external, such as noticing five objects in the room, or tuning into the sounds around you.
You can calm your partner by lowering your voice and slowing down the pace of your conversation. Couples can also affirm their relationship by saying, “Look, I know we’re talking about something difficult right now, and we’re both feeling defensive. I also know that we’re good together, and we can resolve this problem between us. Let’s try again.” Partners can also use touch: holding hands, placing a hand on your partner’s knee or shoulder, or an affectionate foot to foot nudge can be playful and soothing.
Put Out the Fire
When your attempts to defuse defensiveness aren’t getting the desired results and words become weapons, stop your discussion. Agree to take a pause. Additionally, decide on the length of the pause and when you will return to each other so neither of you feel left or dropped. Avoid slamming doors and generating hostile looks as you both temporarily decamp. As tempting as it may be to toss out words like divorce or separation, try to abstain from threatening the relationship. If you threaten the relationship, you will have to work on repairing the relationship in addition to resolving the conflict between you—and that’s a tall mountain from which to climb down.
Extend an Olive Branch
Between states of hostility and irritability, you can create a space of relief. Feel free to admit to your partner that you acted badly or you were an idiot when you said those hurtful words. Two of the most welcomed words in the realm of a relationship are “I’m sorry.” Be sure not to insult your partner with a lame apology, such as “I am sorry you were upset by what I said.” This statement implies that your partner was at fault, not you. Being humble and admitting your part in getting the relationship off track will endear you to your partner.
Many couples are feeling caged-in due to the pandemic, making it harder to maintain a sense of equilibrium in their relationship. Couples aren’t wired to live together in one space under extreme duress for 24 hours a day. Recognize that you and your partner will make mistakes as you navigate your relationship during this challenging period. Carve out time to have fun or relax with your partner to counterbalance the tension surrounding you. If you can cultivate goodwill and use the communication skills suggested in this article, you may discover that your relationship is stronger than you realized.
Find more tips for controlling anxiety sparked by the coronavirus in “COVID-19: Resources to Help You Stabilize.”