And other important advice from a marriage therapist
Many couples — or roommates, family members and even friends — are quarantining together during the Covid-19 pandemic and learning the hard way that spending 24/7 with one another isn’t always easy. Thankfully, Kati Morton — a licensed marriage and family therapist — is here to share some vital tips with our Wake-Up Call newsletter (subscribe here!).
So, how can a couple avoid fighting right now? What’s the best way to take some “personal space” in close quarters? And how can we split chores… while keeping the peace? Read on for Kati’s helpful advice.
Wake-Up Call: First of all, if someone is quarantining with a significant other, whether they’ve been married for a really long time or they’re just dating, what do they need to keep in mind during this time?
Kati Morton: Personal space is key — because the difference between now and prior to the quarantine is maybe many of us had a job we went to. Although I normally work from home with my husband, I usually go out to dinner with friends or to a yoga class. So we usually have that personal space, that time apart, where we can each just enjoy the alone time. We all actually do need some alone time. Finding time and space to have that alone is still vitally important.
So I’d encourage everybody to create a time that works. I know a lot of people have kids, too, which can get really complicated. But if you just slot out a 30-minute or one-hour window where you take turns. “Okay, I’ll watch the kids. You go in the back and read your book or call your mom or whatever it is that makes you feel good. Do something on your own.”
Communicating that need for personal space is important, whether we’re married, dating, roommates, whatever. Talk about what’s going on and what you need. People can’t read our minds.
You could just say, “You know, this has been super stressful. So at 4:00 p.m. every day, I’m just going to go in my room and read for an hour. I’ll come out if you need me. But otherwise, consider that I’m not here.” Having that conversation will prevent a lot of arguments and a lot of upsets.
In that same vein, what advice would you give to somebody who might potentially take that need for space personally?
Understand that normally we have that space, so it actually has nothing to do with you. It’s just a change of environment. Normally we can walk out and go grab a coffee and sit — or go get lunch with friends or anything like that — and we wouldn’t take offense to that.
No one is expected to be with another person, 24/7. It’s okay to take an hour or a half hour out of your day to be alone and be quiet sometimes. That’s just part of what we need. If anybody thinks that that’s like a personal attack on them, just consider how much time they used to spend together and compare that with now. You’re actually probably getting more attention and more time together than before by a long shot.
What advice would you have for anyone quarantining together for avoiding arguments and confrontations? It’s a very difficult time. It’s stressful. It’s scary. And on top of that, we don’t have much space. So how can we actually avoid arguing?
Taking personal space hopefully will separate that and prevent it a little bit. But anger is a secondary emotion. It usually is hiding fear, hurt, worry, upset. Those are all normal things that we’re all feeling during this time. We’re in a constant stress response because they don’t really know what’s to come. So instead of acting out in anger, I’ve been trying to identify the real feeling.
That takes a little time, but for instance, I sometimes find myself feeling irritated towards my husband — where I’m like,” Oh, you left the dishes in the sink again and you made a mess. You didn’t pick up your clothes.” I’m just annoyed. So I always think, what’s really happening? Oh, I’m just worried because my grandma’s home alone. Just acknowledging what’s really going on is validating as to why I’m feeling that way. It actually has nothing to do with my husband; it’s just things that are out of my control.
Another tool: If you find yourself getting really, really agitated, acknowledge what you don’t have control over and then choose to focus on what you do have control over.
How can we be supportive partners? It’s tough to be there for our partner’s needs emotionally… when you’re going through a hard time as well.
When I keep saying is that “fight, flight, freeze,” is what our body does to protect ourselves. So if we feel a threat, we’re in a stress response. The real antidote to it is connection. And that doesn’t mean that we have to solve their problem or support them… We can just share in the experience. That connection around feeling the pain, the worry, the stress, the grief together is enough.
Don’t think that you can’t just call a friend and be like, “Yeah, today’s been terrible. This has been really stressful.” They’ll likely say, “Yeah, me too.” It’s just that shared experience. No one has to have any answers. No one has to have the right words to say. As long as we just connect. I think we’ll all feel a lot better.
What are some activities you suggest for couples, as a bit of stress relief and bonding during this time?
There’s a lot of resources now. There are games, card games, board games, and there are games through Jackbox TV people can play. Any way that you can lighten the mood and play a game is great. I also think it’s great to FaceTime or Skype or Zoom with other friends and family — just as you would normally go out to dinner or go grab drinks.
Also, my husband and I have been setting shared goals. So in the house, we want to do X, Y or Z, and then we reward ourselves with, for instance, making a meal that we really like. Or what are we going to do when this is over? Planning out your next adventure or vacation can lighten the mood and bring a little levity. Also… dance parties. My friends have Zoom dance parties — even just dancing with their roommates or their dogs, goofing around, putting music on and boogying through the house.
Not to get too nerdy about it, but there’s this type of therapy called somatic experiencing — which is like following animals. Let’s say, a deer runs away from a bear that could kill it. When it gets away and it gets to safety, it does a full-body shake. That’s its way of soothing its system, calming it down, and shaking off that fight, flight, freeze response.
Humans need that too. Our bodies actually need to exert that stress energy. But we don’t really have an outlet for it here — there’s no action… we can’t run from the coronavirus. So dancing is kind of like shaking it off. It does actually make us feel better, like calms our nervous system down.
Oh, that’s such a great idea. And when it comes to chores, what advice would you have for dividing up a workload or talking about what you need done?
How you’re communicating about chores and the expectations is key. If that’s chore wheels, that’s great. My husband and I talk every Friday about what we’re going to do in the house that weekend. We divvy it up and then we both agreed to it.
The worst thing we can do is have expectations for someone — and not communicate them. If we expect them to clean up the bathroom or it’s bothering us, but they’re leaving their towel on the floor or dishes in the sink, when you’re not upset is the time to say, “Hey, I’ve been noticing you doing this. And I would just appreciate it if you (would insert the way that you’d want them to deal with it and be open to compromise).”
This originally appeared on Medium.com