After months of virtually seeing couples and families in my psychotherapy practice in Washington, DC and Bethesda, MD during the pandemic, I’m noticing how much relationships are changing due to the impact of COVID-19. Many of us in the DC metro area have been sheltering in place for almost 12 weeks–we’ve home schooled our kids, worked remotely at home, stopped socializing in person, limited our outings, dropped our gym memberships, halted our shopping and dining out excursions, etc. In response, we’ve creatively tried to do everything virtually–we’ve created zoom boot camp, zoom happy hours, interactive family gaming, online grocery deliveries, and even distanced graduation ceremonies. Yet, our relationships have undergone drastic changes. Here are a few areas that I’ve noticed have had the greatest impact, and some ideas for managing these vast changes.
Role Reversals: If fortunate enough to still have jobs, most parents are working at home. And some parents have a partner who lost a job or is working much less. With all parents at home, they are experiencing changes in how they divided up responsibilities of home, work, and family. Some less involved parents have had to jump in as full-time home schooling teachers. Some default parents are now the primary breadwinners for their family. Many families have had a complete flip in their division of labor.
How can parents best deal with rapid change and uncertainty? I suggest relooking at your family’s 5 R’s: Roles, Rules, Responsibilities, Relationships and Routines. Identify what has changed, what systems you can add, and what you need to delete. Pick one primary strategy or guiding principle for each R. Then default to that “one thing” when you feel lost and overwhelmed.
Role Strain: One primary theme has emerged from my sessions with parents—Parents are extremely stressed and overburdened as teachers, employees, parents, and partners. They are having sleep issues, anxiety, and much more conflict with their partner. Every small decision becomes an argument and a burden as both parents strive to work and care for their children well. This strain is especially paramount for parents who are both still required to work and produce at a high level while simultaneously being tasked to home-school their children.
How can parents minimize their level of stress and overwhelm in relation to the insurmountable demands placed on them during this economic and health crisis? I encourage families to go back to the basics. First, start with how they care for themselves in the tiniest of moments–think sleep, food, movement, meditation or prayer. Consider mini strategies to shorten the time you spend, but do something daily to complete your stress response cycle and decrease your cortisol levels, which are heightened in the midst of chronic prolonged stress. Take a look at the image below, which shows how cortisol from your stress response can keep you in a loop of feeling stressed, unless you interrupt the cycle by decreasing your cortisol levels. Consider these strategies for self-soothing: https://thesibleygroupdc.com/5ss-support-soothing-strategies-for-parents-couples-during-covid/
Conflict in Partner Relationships: Even strong couples are struggling. Why? They don’t have the same outlets outside of the relationship–work, mom’s night out, weekly basketball games etc. They also have too much demand on the relationship. Partners are socializing together, working together, and home-schooling together all while needing to feed and care for their children during uncertain times. Uncertainty and stress almost always leads to arguing.
How can couples try to lean in to each other for support rather than fight to get their needs met? Partners need to evaluate how they are coping with their own stress first. Brene Brown highlights 3 negative methods of coping when we are dealing with vulnerable times--turning inward (i.e. isolating), turning away (i.e. avoiding), or turning against (i.e. resisting or fighting). She suggests that turning toward what is vulnerable and scary is not our default, yet it is the preferred method when we are dealing with a problem. We need to turn toward it to feel it, understand it, and then begin to create solutions for our problems. So next time you or your partner exit a discussion or attack the other, try to slow down and acknowledge how scary this situation is for everyone right now. Get soft in your feelings and response. Be tender with each other.
Sibling Fighting: Siblings are similar to parents during COVID–they are socially restricted to each other and fighting more. Why? Because they don’t have their normal daily activities and broad group of friends to focus their social energy on.
How can parents help siblings get along better during so much “together time?” Try to schedule downtime for each child where they get a break from their siblings. See if you can run errands with one child at time to help them have a break from the home and family. Pick one joyful activity that you can do with each child that is their “special time” just for 10-15 minutes even if only once weekly.
Pandemic Visitors: You might also have extended family staying with you who moved in at the start of isolation in order to manage everyone’s pandemic demands. This arrangement could offer a lot of support–extra hands for childcare, a broader social network while sheltering at home, and more space for some family members.
However, what do you do when your pandemic visitors aren’t contributing financially or logistically within the household during their stay? You and your partner need to sync up about what your limits and expectations are. You need to decide who can stay, for how long, and in what way. Start with brief visits and set an endpoint. Also, make sure you ask for some form of contribution from your guests. This is not a vacation, it is working and sheltering at home, which requires daily child supervision, constant meal preparation, regular home care, and lots of financial output. Make a list of at least 3-5 expectations and discuss with your guests, ideally at the start of isolation. If you are midway through this arrangement, then bring up these issues at a transition point (i.e. moving into summer, etc.).
Extended Family: Whether we have extended family near or far, most of us deal with expectations from our extended families about time spent and efforts made. These demands play out in all kinds of scenarios (even virtual) including planning graduations, sharing vacation homes, agreeing upon safe visits among several related families. Different families have different expectations and varying COVID practices and precautions, and different expectations can turn into disappointment or conflict.
How do we manage differing expectations around contact? Your primary tool when dealing with extended family members is COMMUNICATION. Be kind, be specific and be clear about your practices and expectations. And, over-communicate through several different methods–email, phone, etc. Don’t assume that everyone uses the same method of communication.
Hopefully, we will all get to loosen some of our isolation practices throughout the summer. As we open up our Corona Bubbles, we can hope to feel some relief in our relationships. Try to start small and go slow as you re-enter parts of your life. Please recognize that most of us feel changed by this pandemic. Yet, people need people! So keep your relationships in mind as you cope with the stressors of isolation and re-entry. Try to turn toward each through communication as you step out into the world more.