The Impact of Covid on Couples and What We Can Learn
In many ways we are still recovering from the shock of living through lock-down and a pandemic. The impact of quarantine, isolation, and even now being socially cautious is challenging to say the least. Eighteen months since Covid 19 infected the world, many are divided in how we think about masks, no masks, and vaccines. The uncertainty that comes along with changing mandates, uncertainty about virus mutations and new strains continues creating anxiety and stress for thousands of couples.
Psychologist Dr. Angela Bisignano answers questions about how couples are weathering the aftermath of the pandemic storm and lessons couples can learn moving forward.
What are some of the most challenging issues couples have had to face during the last 18 months?
The first thing I want to mention is that many are experiencing symptoms similar to those found in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depressive disorders. Some of the main symptoms include fear, anxiety, stress, hypervigilance, confusion, inability to concentrate, impaired focus, disrupted sleep patterns, changes in appetite, loss of pleasure or sadness. The ongoing uncertainty around concerns about getting Covid, changing mask mandates, financial instability, impact on children and their education, continue wearing on many.
To acknowledge that perhaps we are not okay, and that’s okay, too, is important. Life is not always easy. Sometimes, life is difficult. Having said that however, doesn’t mean we won’t get through the challenges. We can and that should be our aim. Talking and processing what is going on is important.
I think it’s true, just because we are starting to move forward there are many lingering effects. Sometimes it feels like one step forward two steps back.
Yes, and we must make space for our mental, emotional and relational health during times of uncertainty.
What are some things you are specifically seeing in your couples?
Several things quickly come to mind and not necessarily in this order. First, navigating work / life balance and being with their partner 24/7 is a big one. Second, poor communication and inability to manage conflict during crisis remains a big challenge. Third, unhealthy ways of diffusing external stress and dealing with times of uncertainty is difficult for many.
I think most would agree that learning to manage work and personal life from home was challenging, but what did you see that we can learn from?
I think the most important thing to do is to talk about feelings and needs about what’s going on with us. Many were feeling anxiety, stress, fear, frustration and confusion. Simply, putting a name to what we are feeling and saying it out loud is a great place to begin. Expressing your feelings to your partner in a gentle and respectful way lets your partner into your internal world. People are not mind-readers, so we need to be clear about what’s going on with us. The impact of Covid varies from person to person. Secondly, and sometimes more difficult is identifying our needs and expressing them in a positive way to our partner.
An example of this is the following: “George, I’m feeling a great deal of stress and anxiety about my job. A lot of people are being let go since the pandemic and I’m not sure what will happen with mine. What I need is your support. I also need to have some conversations with you about how I might talk with my boss about my job and future.”
Another example pertaining to work / life balance might go like this, “Honey, I am feeling overwhelmed and frustrated with trying to find space to work, manage the kids’ activities and take care of the house. What I could really use is that you and I come up with a schedule together for the kids and take turns driving them to their activities. Another thing that might be helpful for us is that we carve out some alone time for self-care and add a date night for some relationship fun.”
Good communication seems key, and many relationships were negatively impacted, what do you suggest couples do regarding improving their communication skills? What might you suggest to those couples moving struggling?
In general, one of the biggest trends I am seeing is that those who were struggling prior to the pandemic, are having a harder time adjusting. Their issues became magnified – and a lot of it goes back to the ways couples are communicating.
Couples should know that if they are struggling with their communication, they are not alone. Thousands of couples have difficulty in this area. The good news is that you can improve the quality of your communication and how you manage conflict. If you and your partner have poor communication, unless you learn some healthier skills and strategies communication probably will not change.
Can you suggest a couple skills that might help?
Yes, one of the first things I teach my couples when they come to therapy is about psychologist Dr. John Gottman’s research. He refers to certain unhealthy modes of communication as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. When couples use these modes of communication on a regular basis their conversations at best are strained. Instead, learning to use antidotes to these four horsemen is suggested. It can make all the difference in how you communicate and can save your marriage.
That’s seems extreme, “save your marriage.” Can you elaborate?
Dr. Gottman’s research has shown with about 93% accuracy he can predict which relationships will not last. These are the relationships where one, or both partners are regularly using contempt. Contempt can be explained as someone who communicates with a sense of superiority, coming from a place of I’m better than you. It can be communicated both verbally and non-verbally. Verbally it can come across as sarcasm, hostile humor, mean-spirited comments, put downs or name-calling. Non-verbally, it be demonstrated as eye-rolling, pursing the lips or sneering. The overall feeling for the recipient of contemptuous communication is that the other person is disgusted with them. Learning the antidotes is highly recommended.
Can you suggest a skill for reducing stress?
Yes, I find using a stress less conversation extremely effective. It’s a little twist on Dr. Gottman’s stress reducing conversation. This type of conversation focuses on external stressors. The goal is to set aside time so that you can talk to your partner about what is stressing you out. The goal is to have a way of diffusing your stress in a healthy and emotionally connected way. The less in stress less stands for
- Stand with
In this type of conversation when one partner is talking the other partner is emotionally connecting, being present and staying engaged, asking questions and staying interested. They are not on their cell phone, watching Netflix or a sporting event. They are acting as a support for their partner to help decrease their stress. When couples practice this regularly it can really help.